Insult to Injury
New data reveal an alarming trend: Vets' disabilities are being downgraded
In the middle of a battle in Fallujah in April 2004, an M80 grenade landed a foot away from Fred Ball. The blast threw the 26-year-old Marine sergeant 10 feet into the air and sent a piece of hot shrapnel into his right temple. Once his wound was patched up, Ball insisted on rejoining his men. For the next three months, he continued to go on raids, then returned to Camp Pendleton, Calif.
But Ball was not all right. Military doctors concluded that Ball was suffering from a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic headaches, and balance problems. Ball, who had a 3.5 grade-point average in high school, was found to have a sixth-grade-level learning capability. In January of last year, the Marine Corps found him unfit for duty but not disabled enough to receive full permanent disability retirement benefits and discharged him.
Ball's situation has taken a dire turn for the worse. The tremors that he experienced after the blast are back, he can hardly walk, and he has trouble using a pencil or a fork. Ball's case is being handled by the Department of Veterans Affairs-he receives $337 a month-but while his case is under appeal, he receives no medical care. He works 16-hour shifts at a packing-crate plant near his home in East Wenatchee, Wash., but he has gone into debt to cover his $1,600 monthly mortgage and support his wife and 2-month-old son. "Life is coming down around me," Ball says. Trained to be strong and self-sufficient, Ball now speaks in tones of audible pain.
Fred Ball's story is just one of a shocking number of cases where the U.S. military appears to have dispensed low disability ratings to wounded service members with serious injuries and thus avoided paying them full military disabled retirement benefits. While most recent attention has been paid to substandard conditions and outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the first stop for many wounded soldiers stateside, veterans' advocates say that a more grievous problem is an arbitrary and dysfunctional disability ratings process that is short-changing the nation's newest crop of veterans. The trouble has existed for years, but now that the country is at war, tens of thousands of Americans are being caught up in it.
Now an extensive investigation by U.S. News and a new Army inspector general's report reveal that the system is beset by ambiguity and riddled with discrepancies. Indeed, Department of Defense data examined by U.S. News and military experts show that the vast majority-nearly 93 percent-of disabled troops are receiving low ratings, and more have been graded similarly in recent years. What's more, ground troops, who suffer the most combat injuries from the ubiquitous roadside bombs, have received the lowest ratings.
One counselor who has helped wounded soldiers navigate the process for over a decade believes that as many as half of them may have received ratings that are too low. Ron Smith, deputy general counsel for the Disabled American Veterans, says: "If it is even 10 percent, it is unconscionable." The DAV is chartered by Congress to represent service members as they go through the evaluation process. Its national service officers are based at each rating location, and there is a countrywide network of counselors. Smith says he recently asked the staff to cull those cases that appeared to have been incorrectly rated. Within six hours, he says, they had forwarded him 30 cases. "So far," Smith says, "the review supports the conclusion that a significant number of soldiers are being fairly dramatically underrated by the U.S. Army."