By David Yancey
Sunday, April 8, 2007
I had a big anniversary last week. April 1 marked the end of two full years I've spent at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Like a lot of outpatients who've been here a long time, I was happy to see the Washington Post report about the lousy conditions and the delays and frustrations soldiers face when they're ready to leave the service. But the bureaucratic obstacles that injured soldiers have to fight through are still a problem, for me and a lot of others. Reforming the disability system that keeps us hanging around for no reason -- a system so complex that it's all but impossible for soldiers to navigate it -- is going to take longer than renovating Building 18.
I was hit while serving in Iraq with the Mississippi National Guard early in the spring of 2005. I was the gunner on a Humvee headed toward Baghdad. A bomb buried in the road exploded and tore our vehicle in half. The driver lost his legs. At the time, I thought I was lucky -- the blast fractured my left femur, and severed the brachial artery and caused major nerve damage in my right arm. It also broke several ribs, collapsed a lung and caused traumatic brain injury. Three days later, I was in a place I'd never heard of until I woke up there: Walter Reed.
For the first year, through several surgeries, I felt that the medical staffers knew what they were doing, even though they did seem eager to move soldiers out of the hospital. Living in Mologne House, the Army's hotel at Walter Reed, I tried to cope with a manual wheelchair that I could barely move. I nearly lost my arm a second time when it got caught in the door to my room, rupturing my brachial artery again. My arm filled with blood, but the doctors were able to save it. Over time, with the help of physical therapists, I graduated from a wheelchair to crutches to a cane. Now, with a titanium rod in my leg, I walk with a limp.
I still can't make it more than a few blocks without needing to rest. I've lost strength in my right arm. I suffer from migraines, memory loss and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
As my medical condition has stabilized, I have waited month after month for the disability system to decide whether I can retire and under what circumstances. As a soldier, if your degree of disability is rated at 30 percent, you receive monthly checks, health insurance and other privileges. If not, you get a single severance check. And when you turn to Veterans Affairs for benefits, you have to pay back the severance.
At this time a year ago, I thought I would be heading home after my orthopedist wrote a narrative summary of my injuries, a step that's supposed to trigger the disability evaluation process. The Defense Department says soldiers should go before a medical evaluation board 30 days after that. Instead it took seven months.
I spent those months shuttling from doctor to doctor, trying to collect all the reports and updates I needed. I went to case managers, my platoon first sergeant and the physical evaluation board liaison officer (called a PEBLO), who is supposed to coordinate the process. (She was away taking classes for nearly two months last summer, and instead of my case being assigned to another PEBLO, everything stalled until she returned.) David Sheldon, the civilian attorney who was representing me at no cost, wrote letters asking the authorities to move more quickly. I asked the National Guard liaison at Walter Reed for help; I stood up in hospital "town meetings" to complain.
It was a depressing time. The brain injury complicated my efforts to battle the bureaucracy: I was irritable and had trouble remembering things and concentrating on tasks at hand. Back in Mississippi, my father, who had Lou Gehrig's disease, was in and out of the hospital, but I couldn't be with my family much to help out. He died last March.
Finally, in October, I received my med board report; the following month I got my disability rating. I was rated at just 10 percent for my arm injuries. The board gave no ratings for my damaged leg, my migraines, or my traumatic brain injury and subsequent psychological and cognitive problems. I disagreed with the findings and asked for a formal hearing.
I spent thousands of dollars, at my lawyer's recommendation, on civilian doctors, who wrote their own reports. We went to the formal hearing on Jan. 17, hoping for a fairer rating. The formal board didn't reach a decision; it wanted additional X-rays.
At this point, I contacted Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), whose staffs were a big help. I didn't want to ask for assistance; congressmen have important issues to work on. But I felt I didn't have a choice -- my future was at stake.
In late February, I was offered a 30 percent rating. I signed the paperwork on March 6. Then came another round of mistakes and delays -- wrong forms, missing reports, orders that didn't come through, administrators who contradicted what other administrators were telling me -- before I could complete my outprocessing. I could never let down my guard. If I had signed one particular form that my outprocessing manager insisted I had to sign, I could have lost my health insurance.
I suspect that my going outside the chain of command has caused some repercussions. One day, I was escorted to my PEBLO's office (as if I didn't know the way), only to learn that there was no reason to be there. And when my medical records were returned to me last month, key documents were missing. No one seems to know where they are. Fortunately, I'd made copies of everything, just as friends had urged me to do more than a year ago.
This is not supposed to be an adversarial system, but that's the way it feels -- like another battle to fight.
I finally got my orders. I expect to leave for home next week and return to civilian life. I hope I never have to return to Walter Reed.
The writer is a sergeant in the Army National Guard. He was assisted in the preparation of this article by Paula Span, a contributing writer to The Washington Post Magazine.