Injured Connecticut Soldier Denied Service Benefits

WTNH News Channel 8

(Southington-WTNH) _ A presidential task force has announced new measures to improve what it describes as unacceptably poor coordination between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the defense department when it comes to helping wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan prove their disability claims.

Just last week veterans affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson said “these heroes should not have to fight bureaucratic red tape for benefits earned by their courageous service.” Ryan Riddle is a Connecticut veteran who has been fighting through that red tape ever since he was wounded in Iraq.

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It was a dangerous job in a dangerous place, guarding a checkpoint from a bunker in Baghdad’s Green Zone. But it was not insurgents Riddle had to worry about on a hot summer night two years ago, it was a bullet from an M-16 carried by one of his own comrades.

“It felt like someone took a sledge hammer to my thigh, I couldn’t even stand,” said Riddle. “I had to be walked to my vehicle and when I put up my leg the bleeding just started and it wouldn’t stop.”

It was an accidental shooting which left very real scars from shrapnel wounds to Riddle’s wrist and legs. Doctors were unable to remove part of the bullet in his leg because it was too close to an artery.

Riddle received a commendation for his service at the checkpoint; the soldier who shot him got a reprimand. Riddle was discharged and moved home to Southington. He filed for service related benefits for the gun shot wound, and doctors at the Newington Veterans hospital told him there is no proof of his injury.

Riddle said he was told doctors were not sure if he was shot on the streets of Hartford or in Iraq. Despite X-rays that clearly showed a bullet still lodged in Riddle’s thigh the VA denied his claim saying “service records do not document a gunshot wound to the left thigh during service.”

Somehow, Riddle’s service records had been lost.

“I was taken a back, I didn’t know what to say,” said Riddle. “You know I thought when I served my country and fought a war that I’d at least be taken care of after it was done but it’s just the system.”

Both the VA and Defense Department would not help Riddle so News Channel 8 joined the fight. First, tracking down the family of Riddle’s sergeant, still stationed in Iraq. News Channel 8 also contacted Sgt. Dirk Humphries and received a detailed account of what happened. We also obtained a second letter from another soldier who was there at the time of Riddle’s shooting.

As the collected evidence piled up in support of Riddle’s story, the VA denied his appeal, again saying it still could not find evidence he was shot in Iraq.

So News Channel 8 went to Washington D.C. to confront the VA. The VA declined a request for an interview, News Channel 8’s Alan Cohn showed up at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing and waited for Ronald Aument, the VA’s under Secretary for Benefits.

“The question is, how could a TV station from Connecticut reach out to people in Baghdad and confirm that this private was shot and the VA can’t?
“Frankly, I don’t know the facts, but I’ll be happy to look into it,” Aument said.

Mary Ellen McCarthy is with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and said by law the VA is required to help research claims. But in reality, sometimes it is next to impossible because the VA cannot access the Defense Department’s computer system to search service records.

“People are more interested in instruments of war than they are in providing a paper trail for a disabled veteran and until that changes I think we’re going to continue to see some problems in this area,” said McCarthy.

In the case of Ryan Riddle, News Channel 8 provided the evidence of the gunshot wound the VA was not able to get on its own.

“I can assure you we’ll look into it promptly,” Aument said. “We’re going to do the right thing by every veteran who comes to us.”

That was almost a month ago. News Channel 8 turned over a letter written on Army stationary by Riddle’s sergeant who was with him when he was shot. We even offered to give the VA the x-rays that show the bullet lodged in his thigh, but as of right now, Riddle’s claim is still denied.

The VA said the documents help but it is still trying to get a hold of the soldiers that we had no trouble contacting to corroborate their story.

Rep. John Larson, who has been following the case, said it’s ridiculous. “It seems they are in deny, deny, deny mode instead of being there to help the veteran,” said Larson.

The VA denies that and said it is just following the process it’s required to.

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