WASHINGTON - Nearly one-third of the National Guard and Reserve troops returning from war with illnesses or injuries are forced to wait more than four months to learn whether they'll be compensated under the military's disability system.
That's only one problem in a compensation system that can be as unforgiving as the battlefield. Fewer than one in 10 applicants receives the long-term disability payments they request.
The Army knows the troops are unhappy. But military officials say soldiers do not understand that their disability system measures fitness for duty, not the degree of one's sacrifice.
Most soldiers applying for disability pay - 56 percent in the Army's case - are leaving service with a one-time, lump-sum payment some say is inadequate.
Jesus Oliveras, a chief warrant officer in an Augusta, Ga., reserve unit, was among those ordered back to duty without compensation.
Oliveras said doctors wrote on his records that he had a hearing loss. He contends they gave little recognition to his real problems: debilitating back and shoulder injuries. Despite those injuries, the maintenance technician volunteered for service in Iraq.
"At times I felt lousy, as a second-class citizen, especially coming from a war zone," Oliveras said. "They sent us to fight an enemy and when we returned, we had to fight another enemy - us."
Oliveras said he accepted the fit-for-duty ruling because he is eligible for regular military retirement in three years.
The military's disability system resembles workers' compensation and long-term disability in the private sector. It pays people when they have illnesses and injuries that are job-related.
The military, however, looks at a much narrower set of circumstances than insurers or the Department of Veterans Affairs. It only evaluates ailments that make a soldier unfit for duty in his or her specialty. For example, can an infantryman still run?
The more generous VA compensation system considers all service-connected medical conditions.
Soldiers who receive disability compensation from the military also can apply to the VA for disability pay. The military compensation is needed, however, to tide a soldier over while waiting for the VA. The department recently was averaging 171 days to make initial disability decisions.
When the VA's disability compensation kicks in, it usually replaces military pay. Recipients cannot benefit from both systems at the same time.
In the military system, the Army says, many soldiers misunderstand that pain by itself won't win them compensation.
"You can't be retired on pain claims alone," said Dennis Brower, legal adviser to the Army Disability Agency. "Pain is unmeasurable. It's subjective."
The Army does not keep statistics on the dollar amounts of disability payouts because they are based on a formula that includes a percentage assigned to each soldier's disability. But it does maintain records on how many applicants for long-term disability receive compensation.
The majority, 56.1 percent, were given a one-time, lump-sum payment in 2003. Seventeen percent received nothing because they either were declared fit for duty or determined to suffer injuries unrelated to their service or due to negligence.
An additional 17.1 percent received temporary disability payments that can be reviewed within five years. And just 9.8 percent won long-term disability pay that lasts for life.
Lavoda Anderson of Ninety-Six, S.C., said she suffered a life-altering injury to her back while under fire in Iraq last year. In constant pain, she was jolted anew when the Army calculated her compensation for medical retirement at $13,400.
"I feel I was treated very unfairly," said Anderson, who did not return to her prewar job as a dialysis technician and is raising her 4-year-old daughter. "I didn't get adequate care. I feel like I'm useless most of the time."
Brower, the lawyer for the Army disability agency, said, "You can't give higher disability ratings to soldiers who you feel emotionally deserve it. It would be nice to give every soldier 100 percent (disability), but as a taxpayer, you might not like that."
Soldiers, particularly National Guard and Reserve members, also complain about long delays in medical diagnosis and treatment before they can receive a determination of disability.
Col. Michael Deaton of the Army surgeon general's office said that as of late June, 32 percent of the activated Guard and Reserve members were in a medical holdover status more than 120 days. That compares with 41 percent in November.
A program that allows soldiers to be treated near where they live has helped to reduce waiting times for medical care, he said.
Spc. John Ramsey, a deputy sheriff in Orange County, Fla., had medical bills in the thousands of dollars and was dogged by creditors. Meanwhile, the state and federal governments fought over responsibility for his shoulder injuries suffered in Iraq.
"My wife and I and two kids were put through hell because of this," Ramsey said.
Sgt. John Beard of Jacksonville, Fla., who returned from Iraq with shrapnel wounds in his back, legs and face, said he painfully waited in long lines for processing. On one occasion, confronting an irritable soldier handling pay records, Beard said, "I snatched my orders out of his hands and left."
Staff Sgt. Dwayne Fitzpatrick of Orlando, Fla., won his appeal of an initial offer of a one-time, $23,000 severance payment. He qualified instead for a disability payment of $1,300 a month.
"They dangle some money in your face, so many soldiers will take it and run," he said. "They low-ball everybody. I'm looking at the long term."
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