Injured Vets Struggle to Get Disability Help

"He's gonna be blind for the rest of his life.  Optic nerves don't grow back.  He will never drive.  He can't go to work. He can't get to work.  It doesn't make sense to me," Megan said.

The Boothbys plan to appeal their rating.

'I Was Stunned'

The Landays have appealed their disability rating once already, but they are still fighting.

A year ago, Marine Cpl. Jeff Landay of Sacramento, Calif., could barely speak.  Today, his speech is clear and upbeat.  He is getting back into shape and his mother, Michelle, works with him to improve his reading.

"I am not as smart as I used to be, but it is one of those things I can keep working on until I can get back to where I was or get better than I was before," Landay said.

A roadside bomb in Iraq left Landay in a coma for 30 days.  Landay had damaged tissue removed from his brain, lost his spleen and suffered liver damage.

Still, the Landays had to make their case to the Department of Defense that he suffers from a disability.

The answer shocked them.

"The 10 percent. … I was like, 'wow,'" Landay said.

"I was stunned," Michelle Landay said.  "I thought it was a typo.  I thought somebody dropped a zero.  And we actually called them to confirm that this was the actual rating — it was 10 percent — because I didn't believe it."

Thirty percent is the demarcation above which soldiers receive medical retirement with full benefits and below which they receive a separation payment without benefits.

"He fought for his life and now he is having to fight for his rightful benefits," Michelle said.

Michelle and Jeff are determined to appeal again, armed with boxes and boxes of medical records. 

Jeff's life is more than 10 percent affected, Michelle said.  "He can longer do what he wanted to do with his life, which was wide open," Michelle said. 

The Landays say they worry more about other veterans who do not have the same ability or support with which to fight.

Waiting for Change

The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs acknowledge that the disability rating process is confusing and often cumbersome.  The two departments rate disabilities in separate processes, which are separate still from the Social Security disability process. 

Veterans often have to prove they were exposed to blasts and have to follow an endless paper trail to substantiate injuries and medical records. 

The military rating system, last overhauled in the 1940s, emphasizes the main physical injury and its impact on manual labor. 

The complexities of brain injuries and multiple injuries from this war do not fit as easily into the old rating system. 

While the Defense Department generally considers only the injury that renders a service member unfit for duty, Veterans Affairs evaluates multiple injuries and their impact.

The result, frequently, is vastly different ratings from each agency.

The president's commission on veterans' care headed by Sen. Bob Dole and former Health Secretary Donna Shalala released its suggestions in July 2007. 

One of their key recommendations was to "completely restructure the disability and compensation systems."

President Bush gave marching orders to the secretary of defense and the secretary of veterans affairs "to look at every one of these recommendations, to take them seriously and to implement them."

So far, though, very little has changed. 

'Miracles Do Happen' 

It is true that most of the survivors are feeling lucky to be alive and are dreaming of their futures.

Woodruff asked, "If I watch you year after year, where do you think it is going to end?"

Glass said with a laugh, "I'll be in a big mansion."

And for Philip's mother, the dream is to see her son walk again someday.  She said confidently, "Miracles do happen." 

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