Discharged with low disability ratings, vets win health care for life

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 12, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Chris Crotte left Sacramento, Calif., for the Army. Seven years later, he left the Army in pain.

Now, the 31-year-old La Entrada High School graduate and Iraq War veteran stands to benefit from a recently approved class-action settlement. Crotte, along with other shell-shocked former combatants, will be getting aid that once was out of reach.

"It can definitely be beneficial," said Crotte, who's now studying auto mechanics and living in West Sacramento. "Getting medical care would be good."

After three years of legal maneuvering, a federal judge in late December quietly approved the settlement that covers Crotte and about 2,100 other veterans who've been medically discharged since 2002 with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Under the settlement, one of several similar efforts now under way, affected veterans discharged with PTSD will get better benefits, including lifetime health care and post-exchange privileges. The affected veterans had been discharged with disability ratings that were too low to receive such benefits.

Anthony Koller, for one, is an Army veteran who lives in Little Elm, Texas, about 50 miles north of Fort Worth. He survived 14 months in Iraq before being discharged with PTSD. His initial low disability rating, though, left the married father of three adrift.

"We live on a month-to-month basis," Koller said in a court declaration.

Under the recently approved class-action settlement, Koller's family will receive health care under TriCare and he can apply for special compensation payments, among other benefits.

Crotte was medically discharged with PTSD in April 2008 after two tours in Iraq as a forward observer with the 17th Field Artillery Brigade. His back, he said, was "messed up." He slept poorly. His mind was jumpy. Officials marked him as only 10 percent disabled, and cut him loose.

"I got out, and hit the road," Crotte said. "I constantly bounced around; I was moving from state to state for a while."

From December 2002 to October 2008, the military medically discharged about 4,300 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with PTSD and disability ratings below 50 percent.

The military services, veterans advocates charged in court, were "engaged in a transparent effort to purge their ranks" and cut costs.

Under congressional pressure in 2008, the Defense Department agreed to grant 50 percent disability ratings to those diagnosed with PTSD in the future. That policy change, though, came too late for some.

"The individual service branches have done nothing to address their mistreatment of potentially thousands of veterans they already have abandoned," Washington-based attorney Brad Fagg wrote in the lawsuit, originally filed in December 2008.

Joining with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the attorneys wrangled several heart-rending plaintiffs for their case.

Crotte opted in to the lawsuit later, though he said he currently had no idea of what he could expect, and when. He's been, like many, a relatively passive participant in the complicated world of class-action law.

"They sent me a letter," Crotte said, "and I filled it out."

The settlement provides lifetime disability retirement benefits to 1,029 veterans with PTSD who'd been denied aid previously. An additional 1,066 will have their disability benefits increased.

Another 2,200 potentially affected veterans didn't opt in to the class-action lawsuit, though they might take individual legal action.

"Nothing suggests that the settlement negotiations were anything but cooperative, fair and transparent," U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge George W. Miller wrote.

Separately, the Defense Department has created the Physical Disability Board of Review, which is empowered to revise the status of veterans who were medically discharged with less than 30 percent disability ratings from Sept. 11, 2001, through Dec. 31, 2009. While the class-action lawsuit was limited to PTSD cases, the special review board can examine any type of medical discharge.

Potentially, 74,374 medically discharged veterans are eligible to apply. So far, only about 3,200 have done so.

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