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New insurance benefit likely for GIs hurt in Iraq, Afghanistan

WASHINGTON—After Army Capt. Lonnie Moore lost a leg in Iraq, he arrived at a stateside Army hospital like many wounded soldiers: with little more than the bathrobe on his back.

Now Congress wants to make sure that Moore and other severely wounded GIs end up in better shape not just physically, but also financially.

A plan to aid severely injured soldiers who face long recoveries and unplanned expenses is expected to win congressional approval this week and a presidential signature shortly afterward.

The measure would provide an insurance benefit from $25,000 to $100,000, tax-free, for troops who suffer physical injuries such as paralysis or loss of limbs, eyesight or hearing. Compensation would depend on the gravity of the injuries and payments would be retroactive for GIs injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"I think it's great," said Moore, 29, of Wichita, Kan., who's close to the end of his stay at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "A lot of these people come back and it's just such a financial hardship on their families."

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs and sponsor of the measure, said in a statement issued after a recent visit with injured soldiers that he hoped the plan would "help ease the difficult times they have in front of them."

The precise number of troops who would qualify for the retroactive benefit is unknown. According to Pentagon figures, about 6,400 GIs have been so seriously injured that they didn't return to duty in Iraq or Afghanistan since conflict started there on Oct. 7, 2001.

Craig's original bill detailed how much compensation each injury would merit. A soldier who lost both hands or feet, for example, or who was blinded, or lost a hand and one eye would have received $100,000, the maximum amount. Loss of speech would have warranted $50,000 and loss of a thumb and index finger on the same hand merited $25,000.

Under the final bill, the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments determine the amounts.

Currently, GIs are eligible for disability payments only after leaving the military. While injured troops receive free medical care, they are ineligible for injury insurance.

The new benefit would be part of the federally subsidized Servicemembers Group Life Insurance plan, the only form of casualty insurance available for military personnel. Premiums for the new coverage would cost soldiers about $1 per month, which would raise about $30 million to help pay future costs. To pay for retroactive coverage for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the government expects to spend about $100 million.

The benefit wouldn't reduce any other government assistance that a wounded soldier might receive.

The Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit, Roanoke, Va.-based veterans group that aids injured soldiers and families, has been the chief advocate of the plan. Jeremy Chwat, director of public policy, said the severe injury benefit is meant to be a "safety net."

"You have families flying across the country on a moment's notice to stay significant periods of time," he said. "All of these financial issues were really causing a strain on the service member's ability to rehabilitate."

The plan, which sped through Congress without hearings, has the backing of the White House, the VA and Defense. It's included in the must-pass 2005 supplemental spending bill that contains money for Iraq, the war on terror, tsunami relief and other initiatives.

The spending bill also includes a nearly tenfold increase in the one-time benefit for survivors of troops killed in combat zones—from $12,000 to $100,000. The increase applies to all fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan since Oct. 7, 2001.

The idea of a benefit for serious injuries arose last month when three severely injured Iraq veterans from the Wounded Warriors Project met with Craig to gain his support.

"Their sincerity and commitment to help others really impressed Senator Craig," said Jeff Schrade, the senator's spokesman.

While a lieutenant in the Army's 1st Infantry Division, Moore lost his leg in April 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Moore's unit was on a mission to rescue other troops.

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