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Injured soldiers recount hurdles in getting pay, benefits

WASHINGTON—While serving in Afghanistan in 2002, Army Special Forces Sgt. John Allen suffered injuries to his legs, back, neck, brain, hearing and vision.

"Then my real troubles started," Allen, a member of the National Guard, told the House Government Reform Committee during a hearing Thursday about problems faced by injured soldiers when they come home.

For more than two years, Allen said, he's had to negotiate a minefield of military bureaucracy that seemed designed to thwart soldiers' efforts to seek medical treatment and keep their families financially secure than help them get through a difficult period.

Army officials told the committee they're establishing new policies to prevent cases like Allen's. But they also said that the war against terrorism created the largest military mobilization since World War II and that some systems weren't designed to handle the medical fallout from such a large troop deployment.

"Though this effort has not been without challenge, we continue to improve our processes and strive to deliver compassionate and timely care," Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, Army deputy chief of staff for personnel, said in his prepared testimony.

A Government Accountability Office report issued Thursday found that many injured Army Reserve and National Guard troops who applied to extend their active-duty status in order to continue their medical care lost weeks of pay and health insurance because of a "convoluted" system.

And when the Army finally does approve a soldier's request for an active duty medical extension, the GAO said, the request first goes through a maze of offices that do nothing about updating the soldier's pay and medical eligibility records. Finally, it gets to the Army Reserve or National Guard personnel offices, where the records are updated.

The GAO said injured and ill soldiers fell into a bureaucratic swamp where they had to continually re-apply to maintain their active-duty status because the Army often issued medical extensions on a short-term basis.

When their active-duty medical extensions run out, the soldiers have no military orders and thus are ineligible for pay and benefits, including medical treatment for them and their families and access to base stores and other services. They then have to reapply for another extension.

"This is where the real trouble started," Sgt. Daniel Forney, an Army Reserve liaison at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, told the committee. "Sometimes it would take up to four months to get their orders."

Based on Army data between Feb. 1 and April 7 of last year, the GAO found that nearly 34 percent of the 867 injured or ill soldiers who sought active-duty extensions lost their pay and benefits before their requests were approved.

"The Army acknowledges the problem but does not know how many injured soldiers have been affected by it," said Gregory Kutz, the GAO's director of financial management and assurance.

Allen, a police officer from Blairstown, N.J., who's been a soldier for 14 years, said that because the Army paid him late 10 times, he couldn't pay his bills and his credit rating dropped. He said he was forced to borrow $10,000 from his father-in-law.

Allen also said he often missed medical appointments because of medical eligibility problems and was moved from base to base without officials knowing that he was coming.

And when his wife went into labor prematurely and the hospital at Fort Bragg initially refused her treatment, Allen said it took the intervention of the acting commander of the Army Special Forces to resolve the problem.

"This is the equivalent of financial friendly fire," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the committee chairman.

One soldier the GAO spoke to injured his foot after he was mobilized following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He went 101 days without orders and missed more than $13,000 in pay. He depleted his savings and had to dip into his retirement funds.

Another who served in Afghanistan and had kidney problems and knee injuries went 92 days without orders and missed nearly $12,000 in pay. The GAO said he needed counseling for his finances and for medical-related stress.

The GAO also found that the Army didn't adequately train staff to deal with the active-duty medical extension policy. Staffers often used Internet chat rooms and word-of-mouth to try to figure it out, but the information was often wrong.

Allen told the committee that he's leaving the service, so he'll no longer have to struggle with the system. But he said he needed to tell his story.

"In the special forces, we had our own motto, `Free the oppressed,'" Allen said. "It's the disabled vets I'm here to free."

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(Goldstein reports for the Kansas City Star.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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