January 30, 2008 – Fort Drum, New York – New York congressional leaders have asked Army Secretary Pete Geren to investigate a report that the Army is blocking Veterans Affairs’ officials from helping injured Fort Drum soldiers prepare their disability claims, potentially leading to reduced benefits.
Meanwhile, a national soldiers’ advocacy group said it planned to seek an official military Court of Inquiry probe into the situation at the northern New York Army post.
In a letter to Geren, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton expressed deep concern and said the allegations “should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.”
“If these allegations are true they run counter to our nation’s pledge made to our men and women in uniform,” Clinton wrote Geren. “It is our duty to eliminate obstacles standing in the way of our disabled service members and veterans, not to create them. Our wounded should not have to deal with endless bureaucratic red tape just to receive the basic care entitled to them.”
In a story Tuesday, National Public Radio reported that an Army ad-hoc group investigating military disability benefits _ known as a “tiger team” _ had recently told VA officers in Buffalo not to assist Fort Drum soldiers with their disability benefits applications.
Injured soldiers are given a 10-day period to comment on proposed disability rulings before they become final. Those forms help determine what benefits disabled soldiers receive after being discharged.
According to the NPR report, the Army did not want the VA to assist in filling out the forms because Fort Drum soldiers were receiving higher disability ratings with their help _ and thus would receive more money in benefits.
“Once again, we witness a military command which is more concerned with saving money than with providing adequate compensation for injured veterans,” said Tod Ensign, an attorney with New York City-based Citizen Soldier.
If a soldier receives a disability rating of less than 30 percent, he or she receives only a lump sum payment instead of a monthly disability payment, Ensign said.
“We are talking about young people, inexperienced, with no knowledge of medical terminology. What’s wrong with helping them? These are determinations that could have a bearing on the rest of their life,” Ensign said.
Ensign said he was working with a handful of active duty Fort Drum soldiers to file a formal request for an official Court of Inquiry. Such a panel can conduct a service-wide investigation into the Army’s policy, he said.
“I can’t imagine Fort Drum soldiers are alone in this,” he said.
Fort Drum spokesman Ben Abel said post officials had no comment about the NPR report, but added that post officials were not involved in any decision to withhold assistance from soldiers.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. George Wright said the Army has no policy against soldiers receiving outside assistance in preparing their disability applications. However, the “tiger team” thought the VA should not be helping soldiers with their applications and told the Buffalo regional VA office, he said.
The VA said it went along with the request because its officers are not qualified to help with soldiers’ disability paperwork.
“We do not train our employees about the intricacies of the military’s disability evaluation system. We would feel that it would be inappropriate for VA employees to apply VA standards to a Department of the Army process,” the VA said in a release.
Rep. John McHugh, whose district includes Fort Drum and is the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, expressed his concerns about the situation at Fort Drum to Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker in a meeting Tuesday.
“The tenor of it certainly is contrary to what we’re trying to accomplish,” McHugh told The Watertown Daily Times. “We want to see more help for those wounded, not less.”
McHugh noted that the Defense Department Authorization Act signed Monday by President Bush included provisions for creating more cooperation between the VA and defense department.
Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, another New York lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee, also wrote to Geren.