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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Back Home, Disabled Vets Fight Injuries, Red Tape

Army and VA can't keep up with numbers of badly wounded soldiers and their families awaiting benefits.

August 08, 2004|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

MANASSAS PARK, Va. — The yellow ribbons are faded and fraying outside the neatly appointed house where Jay Briseno lies tethered to a respirator, his nearly motionless, 21-year-old body a shrunken shadow of the young man who last year went marching off to war.

Shot in the back of the neck in Baghdad on a sweltering afternoon in June 2003, Briseno was rushed with all the speed and efficiency the Army could muster to one hospital after another, brought back from multiple heart attacks and strokes.

But Briseno isn't a soldier anymore. He is a veteran, facing a lifetime of excruciating disability. The efficient war-fighting machine he was a part of has moved on. His care is left to his parents and sisters, who, bent over his bed day and night, are struggling to adjust.

For Briseno and his family -- as for thousands of others wounded in the Iraq war -- the transition from the life they knew as soldiers to a future as disabled veterans is filled with frustration and pain. The military is more efficient than ever in treating its wounded. But after the battle-scarred leave Army hospitals, they often find themselves on their own in an unfamiliar and difficult-to-navigate thicket of benefits and services.

Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, 6,239 troops had been wounded in action, according to a recent Pentagon count. Of those, 57% were so severely injured that they were unable to return to duty. Medically retired from active duty military service, they need immediate assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system.

The surge of newly disabled veterans represents a challenge of a magnitude unseen since Vietnam.

Aware of potential pitfalls, the Army and the VA have started programs to reach out to the most severely wounded soldiers. Among the steps being tried are putting social workers in hospitals where the severely wounded are being treated, adding benefits experts willing to meet bedside with soldiers and creating call centers that offer advice and help after the injured are sent home.

The pilot programs are small and nascent, and both the Army and the VA acknowledge they are not nearly enough.

Congress has yet to allocate funds for the programs, which are being covered out of general soldier and veterans healthcare budgets. But already, case workers say, they have helped some former soldiers get pay owed them and helped others get needed medical equipment and services.

In the case of Briseno, Army officials interceded with the VA to get him a specialized bed that his parents said made it far easier to care for him. The bed has a built-in scale so a nurse can weigh Briseno without moving him, and a platform that makes it easier to turn him the dozen times a day needed to avoid bedsores.

"From the beginning all we got from the VA was lip service," said Joe Briseno, who quit his job to care for his son at home full time. "They questioned every piece of equipment we asked for. They told us Jay should be in an institution. They told us to give up on him. We were desperate when these people from the Army called and said, 'Do you have what you need? Is there any way we can help?' "

Veterans Administration and Army officials say privacy laws prevent them from discussing Briseno's case. But they acknowledge that with soldiers as severely wounded as Briseno being evacuated from Iraq regularly, questions about the adequacy of the system to care for them over the long term are real.

"We found when we looked into this that there seems to be a gap in helping people transition into private life," said Brig. Gen. Michael C., who as director of the Army's Human Resources Policy Directorate is in charge of that service's new program.

"In previous wars the programs existed, but there was no one who was an advocate for the soldier, so the soldier basically navigated through the programs his or herself," Flowers said. "That's awfully tough when you are in the hospital and people say, 'Sign this. Sign that. Everything will be OK,' and then you get out and you're suddenly at the VA and people say, 'Where are your medical records? Where is this? Where is that?' And you don't know."

In looking to the government for their healthcare needs, new veterans follow a long line of their predecessors who, since the Civil War, have been assured that the country they fought for would make its best efforts to take care of them.

But there have always been difficulties in following through. And the VA is a difficult bureaucracy to navigate in even the best of circumstances, much less when dealing with devastating injuries.

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