Families of severely wounded veterans still waiting for help

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Fabienne Uran quit her job after her son, Matthew, broke his neck and fractured his skull and pelvis in a helicopter crash in the Kuwaiti desert in 2005.

Now she takes care of the former pilot on a full-time basis. For her efforts, she figures she should get paid at least $600 a week by federal taxpayers.

"I'm modest about my expectations," said Uran, 60, of Bellevue, Wash.

Like thousands of others who are taking care of wounded veterans at home, Uran had hoped to be getting checks from the Department of Veterans Affairs by now.

In May, President Barack Obama signed a new law that promised — for the first time in history — to pay family members and others who care for severely wounded soldiers at home. To qualify, soldiers had to be injured after Sept. 11, 2001.

But the VA missed a Jan. 30 deadline to get the program up and running. That's angering many families of wounded veterans and many members of Congress, who are accusing the Obama administration of dragging its feet.

On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, gave a public scolding to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, telling him the VA isn't complying with the law.

Murray told Shinseki that the plan as designed by the VA doesn't even resemble what Congress had in mind and that delaying the program was unacceptable. According to Murray, Congress wanted the law to serve at least 3,500 caregivers, at a cost of $1.7 billion over five years. The VA's plan, which calls for covering only 840 caregivers, "is simply not good enough," she said.

Shinseki expressed regrets for the delay and said he understands the frustration, but he said that implementing the program has taken longer than planned. He said benefit checks should be going out by early summer.

Shinseki said the program is starting small but added: "We expect that this program will grow."

"We have an obligation to get this right," he told Murray.

Veterans groups are impatient, too.

Steve Nardizzi, the executive director of Wounded Warrior Project, said the group is "outraged and distressed" by the delay.

"If bureaucracy and red tape are delaying help for the families of these brave men and women, that's inexcusable," Nardizzi said.

Final details of the program are still being ironed out, including eligibility guidelines. Stipends for caregivers are expected to vary in geographic regions and be comparable to salaries of commercial caregivers.

Matthew Uran, who's recovering slowly, has lived with his parents since December 2008, after he and his ex-wife moved to Washington from North Carolina. He just hopes the federal money comes quickly.

"I don't know where I would be without my mom," he said. But he wondered how the federal government could afford the new program: "The government is darn near broke."

In an interview, Murray said the VA should not tighten eligibility because of funding concerns. She said that if more injured soldiers qualify, it's the responsibility of the president and Congress to pay for their care.

"War does cost money," she said. "Caring for our soldiers costs money. We have an obligation to be able to meet that."

After much therapy, Uran can walk and get dressed by himself, though he has trouble using his right hand. He speaks slowly. And his mother said he can have problems with decision-making and using proper judgment. He has had speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy.

"When he came to live with us, it was like getting to know a whole different person," his mother said. "Because of his brain injury, his personality is different."

Uran said her son always wanted to be a commercial airline pilot and "was doing what he loved" when the helicopter crashed, killing another pilot on board.

Under the VA's current plan, Murray said, department officials have "excluded the very families that we intended to help," including traumatically brain-injured soldiers. Until the rules are finalized, she said, it's not even clear whether the Urans will qualify.

The premise behind the program is simple: Congress reasoned that it would cost much less to care for wounded vets at home rather than send them to institutions or nursing homes.

Fabienne Uran said the federal government is wasting money by delaying the program and paying higher costs.

"I think it's criminal," she said.

The program, which will include health care coverage and mental health help, has generated its share of controversy. Many older veterans are complaining that the new benefits will go only to soldiers injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Murray said the law requires the VA to return to Congress in two years to recommend whether the program should be expanded to older veterans. She said Congress wanted to first focus on younger veterans, reasoning that a caregiver for a 25-year-old veteran is likely to face a tougher long-term economic hit than a caregiver for an older veteran.

She said the VA is now dealing with veterans with more significant needs. Because of medical advances, many wounded soldiers are living today "who in previous wars would not have made it through," she said.

Uran said she takes her son to at least three medical appointments a week. While she's eager to take part in the caregivers program, she objects to a requirement that all participants complete training classes.

"I've been Matthew's mom for 37 years," she said. "I've raised six kids. I know that his condition has changed his personality quite a bit, but I don't think I need to have classes to know how to take care of my son."

She recalled a trip to the clinic with her son one day.

"Out of the blue, my son said to me, 'Face it, Mom, I'm never going to be the same again,'" she said. "He said, 'I'm not going to be the old Matthew.' He said, 'That Matthew died in that crash.'"

Then she cried.

"What is the hardest thing?" she asked. "The tears. I don't know if you ever get over it. I feel for every parent that has been impacted by this war, one way or the other."

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