Eileen AJ Connelly

Dealing with finances is another battle for the families of injured soldiers

By Eileen AJ Connelly
Associated Press / May 26, 2010

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Maria Del Carmen Del Toro couldn’t access her husband Israel’s bank account for more than four months while he lay comatose after a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan. With no income, she and her son, Israel Jr., relied on the Air Force and friends for a place to stay and money for necessities. Meanwhile, the car loan, credit cards, and other bills went unpaid. Penalties piled up, and the tab totaled nearly $20,000 when the severely burned sergeant awoke.

Defense Department statistics show more than 17,000 service members have been severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. These troops often face years of complex medical care and extensive therapies. And their finances often become casualties along the way.

Advances in medical care have helped thousands survive injuries that previously would have been fatal. That reality has led to new military programs to help the wounded and their families work through issues that were rare in past conflicts.

Service members now automatically get a life insurance policy, for instance, that includes a traumatic injury provision that will pay up to $100,000 if they receive a disabling injury.

The four branches of the military have also created units to offer assistance throughout treatment and recovery.

Among the services offered by the Army Wounded Warrior program, for instance, are advocates who help families access military and Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.

The advocates can direct wounded service members to entitlements they qualify for. Among the possibilities are emergency financial help, child care assistance, tuition for career education, and VA grants of up to $50,000 for renovations to adapt homes to accommodate wheelchairs or other needs.

But there are often caveats. Del Toro, injured in 2005, was eligible for the renovation grant. But he needed to adapt his house to accommodate the loss of his fingers, something that did not fit neatly into grant rules.

Some of his friends raised $20,000 to do the necessary work, and help replace the sports car he could no longer handle.

After several years of lobbying, families will soon be able to get paid for the help they provide. A law will take effect in January that allows family members like Christine Schei to earn a salary for working as caregivers, at rates similar to what home care workers would earn.

She took on round-the-clock care for her son, Sergeant Erik Schei, after a sniper’s bullet pierced his helmet in Iraq in 2005. She gave up her $32,000-a-year job as an office manager.

The changes will also help pay for caregivers’ own medical care, and provide respite care.

The next fight: trying to get the VA to modernize a system that requires detailed reports on a wounded veteran’s finances, but has no associated software.

Eileen AJ Connelly writes for the Associated Press.