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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Leaving only his heart untouched: An Iraq vet's fight with the Veterans Administration

Sgt. Tony Wood, 41, now based in Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, keeps a large color-coded board by the door with reminders about his appointments, his chores and his belongings, all part of the Brain Injury Recovery Kit he received from a nonprofit group called the 10 in 10 Project. His wife calls him all day with reminders, and after losing his keys countless times, he attaches them to his pants. Notebooks fill his pockets.

In his view, the military is still failing to grasp the depths of his injury, and those of other soldiers like him.

In July 2005, Sergeant Wood's Humvee hit a roadside bomb cemented into the curb. The blast set off a chain reaction, triggering two American fragmentation grenades inside the Humvee along with an antitank weapon and countless rounds of ammunition. The two other soldiers riding with him died in the blast. The explosion tore through Tony's arm and abdomen and then ricocheted inside his body, leaving only his heart untouched. His liver had a fist-sized hole, he lost his spleen and part of his stomach, and he sustained damage to his lungs and diaphragm.

His first memory afterward came a month later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, when he saw his wife and asked her, "Why are you in Iraq?"

Doctors patched up most of his physical wounds over five months. But his wife noticed that he was not himself mentally. He did not remember someone who had just walked out of the room, and forgot questions he had just been asked. He struggled to read one chapter of a book.

At Walter Reed in December 2005, doctors gave him a brain injury test. But it was inconclusive. "They tried to say I had A.D.D., I needed a good night's sleep, you name it," he said.

As he recovered in the Warrior Transition Unit of Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, he tried to decide whether to stay in the military by switching to less taxing jobs, or to leave, collect his benefits and find a civilian job. But his previous jobs – professional cowboy, scuba instructor, construction worker – were out of the question.

He fears that the best job he can get now is to be a greeter at WalMart. With four foster children, two biological children and his wife, he applied to stay in the military. The Army Medical Board deemed him unfit for active duty and sent him to the Physical Evaluation Board for a disability rating that would determine his benefits package once he was discharged from the Army.

When he saw his rating in March, he was floored. Despite his extensive wounds – brain injury, constant pain, failing hips, headaches, noise sensitivity, no spleen, lung damage, liver damage, panic attacks and chronic esophagitis – he received only a 50% disability rating. His brain injury made up 10% of the total. The Board said "his stated difficulties are more consistent" with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"That disability rating was completely wrong," said Mr. Baker of Disabled American Veterans.

"You are still treated like you are trying to beat the government out of money," Tony said. "It's not like I fell off a barstool."

Advice to seriously wounded warriors: You may need to keep fighting after you come home. If so, get a champion, and tell your story long and loud, to win the war at home.

Thanks to Lizette Alvarez for the source story in today's New York Times.

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