Injured soldiers trying to leave military slowed by red tape

Long wait causes some to turn down jobs, delay college

By Kimberly Hefling
Associated Press / August 19, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Staff Sergeant Nicholas Lanier has entered what he calls the “vast unknown.’’ A combat veteran and father to four daughters, he cannot remain in the military because of a serious back injury suffered in Iraq.

But he cannot accept a civilian job because he does not know when the military will discharge him. He has no idea how much the government will pay him in disability compensation related to his injury, so he cannot make a future budget. He just waits.

“I don’t have any idea what the end stat is going to be on the other side. When you have a family and you are trying to plan for the future, that’s going to affect a lot of things,’’ said Lanier, a 37-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., who walks with a limp because of nerve damage. “The only known is that it takes time.’’

Thousands are like Lanier, not fully fit to serve but in limbo for about two years waiting to get discharged under a new system that was supposed to be more efficient. And the delays are not only affecting service members, but the military’s readiness as well. New soldiers cannot enlist until others are discharged.

The government determines the pay and benefits given to the wounded, sick, or injured for their military service. Under the old system, a medical board would determine their level of military compensation and the service member would be discharged.

Then the veteran would essentially have to go through the process again with the Veterans Affairs Department to determine benefits. While they waited for their VA claim to be processed, many of the war wounded were going broke.

Under the new system, which started in 2007 and will be completely rolled out at military bases nationwide next month, the service member essentially goes through both disability evaluation systems at the same time before leaving the military.

But the new, supposedly streamlined, system is still such a cumbersome process that it has left many service members in limbo, they say. A typical service member’s case is handed off between the Defense Department and the VA nine times during the new integrated process.

It typically starts about a year after a service member is injured, after it is clear that remaining on duty is not possible, with a goal of 295 days for completion after that initial year.

However, the average completion time after the initial year is more than 400 days, leaving the service member in limbo more than two years.

Each snag in the process sets a service member back from knowing the extent of benefits and time of discharge from the military.

Troops have had to turn down job offers and delay starting college because they do not know when they can leave military service, and stress is added on an already vulnerable population.

As their cases are processed, many live in the military’s outpatient warrior transition units, where they can get extra support, while others do work for the military that they are physically capable of doing.