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Injured vet faces battle of red tape

March 21, 2007|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

FT. LEWIS, WASH. — A sniper shot Sgt. Joe Baumann on a Baghdad street in April 2005. The AK-47 round ripped through his midsection, ricocheted off his Kevlar vest and shredded his abdomen.

The bullet also ignited tracer rounds in the magazine on his belt, setting Baumann on fire.

Almost two years later, the 22-year-old California National Guard soldier from Petaluma, walks with a cane, suffers from back problems and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder that keeps him from sleeping and holding a job.

"He can't even go to the grocery store by himself," said his wife, Aileen, also 22.

The question pending before a military review board at this big Army post south of Tacoma is whether to grant Baumann a military disability pension and healthcare or simply cut him an $8,000 check for his troubles.

It is a tense bureaucratic triage faced by thousands of wounded American soldiers as they negotiate their return to civilian life. If they are rejected by the military disability system, they can try their luck with the overwhelmed Department of Veterans Affairs, which means another lengthy process with uncertain results.

A 2006 analysis by the federal General Accounting Office showed that for National Guard members and reservists, the process takes much longer and is less likely to result in full disability benefits.

Baumann's case remains very much in limbo -- despite the extraordinary assistance of two of his former commanders, who took time from their civilian careers to come to his aid.

In a preliminary ruling last month, the three-officer Physical Evaluation Board that is reviewing Baumann's case decided for the severance check, rating his disability at only 20% and characterizing his post-traumatic stress disorder as "anxiety disorder and depression."

If he accepted the $8,000, Baumann still would be eligible to apply for Veterans Affairs disability benefits. But VA benefits do not include retirement pay, family healthcare, and military post exchange and commissary privileges. In what many soldiers regard as the ultimate Catch-22, if he were accepted by the VA, he would have to pay the Army's $8,000 back.

"The Army acts like they just want you to get out the door as fast as possible at the lowest possible cost without taking into account how you are going to live for the rest of your life. Here's your $8,000; just go," Baumann said.

Maj. Jesse Miller, one of Baumann's former commanders, who in civilian life is a San Francisco tax litigator for the international law firm of Reed Smith, is acting as Baumann's attorney, commuting regularly from his high-rise office to the dilapidated brick building at Ft. Lewis where the Army Physical Evaluation Board hearings are held.

"Look, I love the Army," Miller said. "I wouldn't do this if I thought he were gaming the system. But from Day 1 in this case, I've felt that the system was stacked against getting a just and fair hearing."

Capt. Kincy Clark, a Silicon Valley software executive who was Baumann's company commander in Iraq, cut short a business trip to Italy to testify at a Feb. 28 hearing. Both men have dipped into their own pockets to help their former soldier. At Miller's urging, Reed Smith contributed its resources pro bono.

"The system was designed for a peacetime Army to ferret out malingerers," Clark said, "but they haven't updated it to accommodate the huge influx of wounded soldiers. Sgt. Baumann is no longer physically or, at this point, mentally fit to go to war. I believe he deserves the full retirement."

Staccato bursts of small-arms training fire sounded in the distance as Baumann discussed his case recently over lunch in a diner outside the Ft. Lewis gate. Baumann, who watched a soldier get shot on the same street where he was hit, said gunfire still made him jittery.

"If it hadn't been for Capt. Clark and Maj. Miller, I would have just taken the check like everyone else," Baumann said.

Instead, Baumann is one of a small percentage of wounded soldiers who have taken their case to a formal board hearing where they have the right to counsel.

As recent congressional testimony revealed, the fates of wounded and injured soldiers like Sgt. Baumann are in the hands of overwhelmed Army Physical Evaluation Boards, or PEBS, located at Ft. Lewis, at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio and at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. Navy, Marine and Air Force evaluations are handled separately.

After lengthy review by a Medical Evaluation Board to determine if the soldier is still fit for service, the Physical Evaluation Board sets the degree of disability for each soldier, from 0% to 100%. A rating of 30% or higher means that the soldier can receive military disability retirement. Anything under 30% is settled with a check or nothing at all.

Even in seemingly similar cases, determinations vary.

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