Hundreds of Army Reserve and National Guard troops returning home after being wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone months without pay or medical benefits they were entitled to receive, military officials and government auditors said Thursday.
Because of a bureaucratic mistake, about 1,000 reservists and Guard members were removed from the active-duty rolls once home, even though their wounds entitled them to extended care, according to a Government Accountability Office study released Thursday.
“This is the equivalent of financial and medical ‘friendly fire,’ ” Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, told military officials at a hearing.
The disclosures represent the latest in a list of problems confronting many returning war veterans, including shortages of physicians, a lack of mental healthcare and spotty medical treatment.
As the number of returning troops grows, Congress has increasingly focused on addressing their problems.
Defense officials and the GAO blamed the wartime crush of wounded part-time troops for overburdening a military health system that has not seen such an onslaught since World War II.
“This is clearly an example of not being able to handle the kind of operational tempo that we have today,” said Gregory D. Kutz, director of the GAO’s financial management and assurance office.
Lawmakers said they were fielding many calls from wounded Reserve and Guard troops who might have been wrongly denied their benefits. In one GAO sample of 38 wounded reservists who had trouble getting the Army to recognize them as being entitled to benefits, 24 went weeks or months without pay and benefits, according to the agency, the investigative arm of Congress. They confront a “convoluted and poorly defined process” to obtain benefits, the GAO said.
“A lot of the guys can’t deal with the bureaucratic problems,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Allen of Blairstown, N.J., wearing an eye patch and leaning on a cane as he testified at the congressional hearing. “They give up somewhere in the process and just go home.”
Several wounded troops testified before the House panel Thursday. A Special Forces soldier who lost a leg to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan said he did not receive $5,000 in paychecks. Another veteran with knee and back injuries said he was forced to move in with his in-laws after missing paychecks totaling $3,886.
Allen, a 14-year Army veteran who serves with the National Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group, has a brain injury and other injuries to his legs, back, neck and eyes resulting from a helicopter accident and a grenade blast.
But Allen said it wasn’t until he returned home for extended treatment that his “real troubles began.”
He had to reapply for coverage every 90 days and was at times denied pay, medical coverage and access to his military base.
After visiting his family in New Jersey for a week after his yearlong combat tour, his leave was cut short and he was ordered back to Ft. Bragg, N.C., because a commander could not find his paperwork.
When his wife went into premature labor in August 2003, she was turned away from a military hospital because his active-duty extension had not yet been approved, Allen said.
Allen was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in January 2004 for continued care. Once there, he was referred to an outside physician. Allen was about to run out of coverage again in mid-December when he met Davis at Walter Reed. The congressman offered to help the war veteran cut through red tape. Eventually, the Army paid Allen more than $12,000 in overdue earnings.
Army officials told the House hearing that they had resolved many of the problems cited in the GAO report related to benefit eligibility for part-time troops. Daniel B. Denning, acting assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, said the influx of wounded was “loading our system like it hasn’t been loaded since World War II.”
The Army’s Human Resources Command processed 15,000 disabled Reserve and Guard members in 2004, said Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army’s head of personnel. That’s more than at any time since the Vietnam War.
In other problems cited at the hearing, one soldier who injured his foot in combat said he was forced to use his retirement savings to live on because the Army declined to pay him for 101 days. Another Afghanistan veteran who needed counseling for medical and financial stress said he was repeatedly refused medical treatment.
For part-time soldiers who are not wounded, medical benefits stop after their active-duty status ends. Soldiers requiring medical treatment are granted extensions so they can qualify for continued benefits. However, many soldiers were only extended for 30 days, then were required to apply to renew those extensions. Many lost benefits awaiting processing of their paperwork.
The GAO found the regulations for caring for wounded Reserve and Guard troops murky. It said the Army lacked a central means of tracking the wounded veterans, and many Army officials lacked the training and education to help them navigate their way through the system. Some soldiers and their families were forced to travel long distances every 30 days to extend their service.
Army officials noted that they had recently begun automatic 179-day extensions of pay and benefits for returning Reserve and Guard troops.
“As far as soldiers dropping off orders and dropping off pay, I believe we have fixed those problems,” said Chief Warrant Officer Rodger L. Shuttleworth, head of the Reserve Component Personnel Support Services Branch of the Army Human Resources Command. “We’re about 90% there.”
However, the GAO found that recent changes had not resolved underlying management control problems. In September and October, for example, the Army did not know how many soldiers were on medical extensions or how many had returned to active duty, the study said.