The handling of injured soldiers remains sad

Published 8:34 am Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Nation magazine (Sept. 15) reports the heart-rending facts of how horribly our returning veterans are being treated by the VA — just when we were led to believe otherwise. Sgt. Juan Jimenez returning from Iraq with two Purple Hearts and shrapnel lodged in his right arm was told he had insufficient proof his wounds were “service connected.” Three and a half years later, the sergeant is still making his case.

The first two roadside bombs sliced into his arms. Six months later, a second bomb sprayed scrap metal into his face, knocking him unconscious and leaving him brain damaged. He began having seizures and suffering from memory loss. The blast also left him with a persistent ringing in his right ear. The stress sparked nightmares, flashbacks and acid-reflux disease.

The VA diagnosis: too much caffeine and drinking too much Red Bull. Eventually Sgt. Jimenez was checked into West Los Angeles VA Hospital for overnight monitoring. There, with the clinicians watching, Jimenez had an epileptic attack. His doctors put him on a powerful anticonvulsant, Prozac for depression, Prazosin for nightmares and Bupropion to help him sleep.

Email newsletter signup

Five months after he filed for disability however, Jimenez received a letter from the VA. The “ratings officer” (nonmedical, and whose identity is hidden) said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove that Jimenez had a seizure disorder or that he had suffered a head wound at all while serving in Iraq.

Sgt. Jimenez case is not isolated. The Nation wrote the VA needs more than a few minor changes at the margins. It needs a massive overhaul of a $94 billion government organization such as:

70 percent of VA facilities don’t have a system to track suicidal veterans. Only a handful of VA hospitals have rehab programs that include families. Soldiers injured today face a benefits waiting list more than 650,000 veterans long.

In some communities VA clinics do not provide mental health or substance abuse care-or a waiting lists render that care virtually inaccessible.

In 2005 alone, more than 6,250 soldiers had committed suicide —120 deaths a week, 18 suicides every day. Yet Dr. Ira Katz, VA’s head of mental health, said, “There is no epidemic of suicide in the VA.”

All veterans are asked to gather proof that they were wounded in the service. In spite of Purple Hearts, combat medals and folders thick with medical evaluations created in Iraq following their injuries. They are required to provide further proof such as: date and time they were wounded and even the circumstances. Often, veterans are asked to contact those who witnessed the attack, to gather “buddy statements” that confirm their stories.

In 2007, 32,000 veterans appealed the VA’s initial ruling. They waited an average of 3 1/2 years for their appeals to be processed.

Bob Handy, chairman of Veterans United for Truth said: “These soldiers are seriously injured and emotionally traumatized and when they get home they make them jump through hoops to get their benefits.”

Mary Milliron