Fighting For War’s Wounded
Augusta lacks advocates to help veterans with benefits
By Johnny Edwards
An item in Sunday’s newspaper listing the top five treatment centers for soldiers evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan should have identified the facilities as military medical centers. The centers are not VA hospitals. The passing of time has only made the pain worse, says Iraq war veteran Daniel Smith.
Two years after suffering a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb, which also fractured his spine in two places and blew out an eardrum, Mr. Smith can’t work and makes regular trips to the downtown Veterans Affairs hospital for nerve ablations and epidural steroid injections, both of them pain treatments involving needles. He’s on 19 nerve medications, muscle relaxers, pain killers and antidepressants.
But pain isn’t the worst thing he’s endured since coming home. What he wasn’t prepared for, what he couldn’t handle, was humiliation — "After serving my country, having to swallow my pride and ask for help for me and my family," he said.
The process of exiting the Army and picking up VA disability left Mr. Smith, 37, in a two-month gap with no income. His wife wasn’t working at the time, and they had two teenage daughters and a house in Aiken County to take care of. He burned through the family’s savings, sunk into debt and had bill collectors after him. He got on the Web site AmericaSupportsYou.mil, looking for grants from nonprofits.
Such things shouldn’t happen, said Laurie Ott, the executive director of the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project. Returning veterans, especially those with brain injuries, shouldn’t have to navigate a bureaucratic maze alone. Someone — an accessible contact person — should tell them what health care and benefits they’re entitled to and make sure they get them, she said.
"It’s one thing to wait for a tax refund," she said. "It’s another thing to sit around waiting for benefits when you’re sitting there with a traumatic brain injury. People such as Daniel deserve to have everything coordinated."
Ms. Ott didn’t come up with this idea on her own. The creation of an Interagency Recovery Coordinator corps was among the recommendations given by the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, formed after deplorable conditions came to light at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The patient advocates should be experts in programs, rules and regulations and act as guidance counselors of sorts for severely wounded service members, the panel advised.
But one year later, the joint VA-Department of Defense program is barely off the ground. Ms. Ott went to Washington last week trying to find out why it’s so far bypassing Augusta, despite the fact that Fort Gordon’s Eisenhower Army Medical Center is one of the top destinations in the country for injured troops.
According to VA spokeswoman Jo Schuda, nine recovery coordinators are working — two at Walter Reed; two at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.; two at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio; one at Balboa Navy Medical Center in San Diego; one at the VA in Houston; and one at the VA in Providence, R.I.
Ms. Schuda said more will be added soon, one each for Walter Reed, Brooke and Balboa.
The news perplexes Ms. Ott, a former television news anchorwoman who started the Wounded Warrior project with former U.S. Rep. D. Douglas Barnard last summer. Their mission is not only to advocate for top-notch care for troops recovering at Eisenhower and Augusta’s VA centers’ active-duty rehabilitation unit but also to restore clout to a medical community whose once-powerful advocates in Atlanta and Washington are retired, dead or in prison.
The presidential commission’s report said that between January 2005 and March 2007, Eisenhower ranked second in the nation as a destination for medical evacuees from Iraq and Afghanistan. Augusta received 1,015 patients, topped only by Walter Reed’s 2,236.
Since then, Eisenhower and Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood, Texas, have flip-flopped between second and third place, Ms. Ott said. Darnall doesn’t have a recovery coordinator, either.
On Thursday, she met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Linda Davis, who’s co-heading the program, in Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ office.
Lucy Marion, the dean of the school of nursing at Medical College of Georgia, also attended to push a proposal — backed by Mr. Chambliss, U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, U.S. Rep. John Barrow and 13 other congressmen — to open a national training center for recovery coordinators at MCG.
Dr. Davis said she’d do what she could to help, both with the nursing school and getting a patient advocate stationed in Augusta, according to Ms. Ott.
In trying to find out why a coordinator hasn’t been put here already, Ms. Ott said she asked for criteria for determining where they’re assigned, and Dr. Davis said that was being worked on and would come out next month in a report to President Bush.
Attempts by The Augusta Chronicle to talk with Dr. Davis were unsuccessful. Turning down an interview request, a Navy spokeswoman said the program is "not really in full swing right now."
"It’s my hope," Ms. Ott said, "that people will recognize that we get wounded warriors, and federal recovery coordinators can be incredibly helpful."
Mr. Smith said he sure could have used a person like