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Thursday, March 20, 2008

I don’t have any more leg to give: Wounded Iraq veterans

At the start of a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing Thursday, the witnesses were asked to stand and raise their right hands to be sworn in.
But former Marine Cpl. Casey Owens lost both legs when he ran over two anti-tank mines in a Humvee on Sept. 20, 2004.

He didn’t stand.

And former Army Sgt. Edward Wade lost his right arm when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb Feb. 14, 2004.

He didn’t raise his hand.

But their stories convinced the committee that after a year of hearings, new laws, toll-free help lines and enhanced programs, troops and veterans still fall through the cracks of the military and Department of Veterans Affairs medical systems.
“Someone needs to reach back and find the people who have been lost over the last few years,” said Sarah Wade, who told her husband’s story because a severe traumatic brain injury has left him disabled.

Both service members showed examples of recent lapses in their care caused by rules and bureaucracy. Owens has yet to be fitted with a prosthesis for his right leg after enduring three surgeries to re-attach his femur muscle to the bone because it kept tearing.

The fourth time it tore — after having an additional three inches of thigh bone, nerve and muscle amputated in the third surgery — his VA doctor suggested the same surgery again.

When another doctor suggested a different surgery might work better for him, it took six months to get VA approval in Houston, compared with 72-hour approval for his previous surgery.

“It was very painful,” Owens said of the wait. “But I don’t have any more leg to give.”

He lost six months’ worth of rehabilitation, as well as time at school or work. He had to go back on pain medication, from which he had weaned himself. As he waited, his Tricare insurance was canceled as a result of a clerical error.
He was finally approved, Owens said, and the fourth surgery seems to have been successful. When he was ready to go off his medication again, he asked for a doctor’s supervision to help him through the withdrawal.

But the VA doctor was too busy, Owens said, and sent him to the substance abuse clinic — which sent him to a methadone clinic.

“I said I wanted to get off the drugs,” not go on methadone, Owens said. So he went to a different doctor with the help of a nonprofit agency and was off his meds within a week.

“Most of my care is from outside doctors,” he said. “I rarely see the VA.”
In fact, he’ll head to Oklahoma with the Wounded Warrior Program to be fitted with a prosthesis because VA scheduled him for only an hour of rehab per week and, when he complained, sent him to a civilian prosthetics specialist who said he didn’t have time to fit Owens with a device because he was swamped.

It took 18 months to finalize his VA claims, and he still doesn’t have copies of his military medical records.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said Owens’ story made him ashamed. “I’m not even sure what to say,” he said. “Would it surprise you that VA officials have sat before us and said they don’t need any more resources?”

Madhulika Agarwal, chief of patient care services for the Veterans Health Administration, later testified that VA has increased its number of case managers, created the Federal Recovery Coordination Program in October for some injured vets, and is seeking funds for its volunteer respite program and foster home program.
The Wade family had issues similar to Owens.

“Ted was retired from the military before he regained consciousness,” she said. “Much of his treatment was by trial and error, as there was no model system of care for a patient like Ted, and there is still no long-term model today.”
Since his injury, he has been in seven facilities, his wife said. The blast that severed his right arm above the elbow also caused vision problems and left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The amputee center at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] are the only people who have been with us for the whole ride,” she said. “Ted’s care was very fragmental.”
She still doesn’t have his medical records, and she is fighting to appeal his disability rating so he can receive special compensation because he needs at-home care.

Meredith Beck, national policy director for the Wounded Warrior Project, said she hears similar tales all the time. She said the government needs to work on individualized care, rather than standardized care, and needs to make greater use of community resources rather than making veterans travel to VA facilities far from home for treatment.

“There’s a common misperception that all their problems are fixed now because their injuries occurred a while ago,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to reach back and find those who still need help.”

Advice on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war’s start: Elect a president who won’t lie us into a needless war.

Browse for related veterans’ stories in the index at the very bottom of this page.

Thanks to Kelly Kennedy for the source story in the March 17 issue of Navy Times.

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