By Anne Hull and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 20, 2007
The Department of Veterans Affairs this week doubled the disability benefits of a West Virginia soldier who has been fighting for more compensation since he returned from Iraq, and assured him that he will receive immediate access to more mental health services to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder.
VA's swift action to help former Army Spec. Troy Turner followed an article in The Washington Post on Sunday that detailed the financial hardship faced by Turner after his PTSD worsened and he was unable to hold a job. Reliant upon a monthly disability check from VA, the Turner family slid into poverty, a grim reality for many returning veterans with invisible injuries such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
In addition to granting Turner a coveted spot in a residential treatment program at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, the department is increasing his disability rating from 70 percent to 100 percent, according to a VA spokeswoman, raising his monthly check from $1,352 to $2,781. The new rating also means that Turner's wife, Michelle, and their two children are eligible for medical insurance and educational benefits.
The former infantry scout acknowledged yesterday that VA's decision will help him, but he expressed concern about others caught in the backlog of claims and appeals. "I just hope they do it for the rest of them," Turner said. "Not just for me, but for all of us."
Turner, 38, and his wife were visited this week by Antonette Zeiss, deputy director for mental health services for the entire VA system. Zeiss spent about 90 minutes inside the Turners' mobile home in Hardy County in rural West Virginia, assessing Turner's needs and treatment program. Zeiss was accompanied by a PTSD counselor from the Martinsburg VA facility.
Acknowledging that not all disabled veterans get their compensation doubled overnight or receive house calls from VA's deputy chief of mental health, Lisette M. Mondello, VA's assistant secretary for public affairs, said yesterday, "It was an opportunity to take one person's experience to see how we are handling it, and translate it to see if there are more things that can be done for other patients."
After the Turners' story appeared in The Post, there was an outpouring of responses from readers. Some sent large donations; others sent small checks and handwritten letters. Evelyn Mitchell, 74, of Riverdale, Md., sent two $25 gift cards with a note that said: "In honor of my late husband, who was a WWII vet -- James J. Mitchell -- a gift for the Turners."
Turner served with the Third Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He had a decade of service with the National Guard and nearly three years with the Army when he was medically discharged with PTSD in 2004 after his tour in Baghdad. Back in West Virginia, he found work as a truck driver, but after 18 months his PTSD symptoms worsened. At first, VA rated his disability at 50 percent, which meant he received $860 a month. The fight for more benefits fell to his wife, and this summer VA agreed that Turner's condition is "chronic and severe" and raised his disability rating to 70 percent.
Now that her husband has full disability benefits, Michelle Turner said, the family will be able to pay their rent and avert the second repossession of their remaining vehicle.
The Turners' plight came to light the same week that President Bush sent legislation to Congress outlining improvements in the care of service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and in their disability compensation. An independent commission appointed by Bush also delivered its recommendations to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. The efforts came months after The Post revealed the neglect and bureaucratic obstacles faced by wounded outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and by disabled veterans across the country.