Injured Iraq Vets Come Home to Poverty

Following inquiries by ABC News, the Pentagon has dropped plans to force a severely wounded U.S. soldier to repay his enlistment bonus after injuries had forced him out of the service.

Army Spc. Tyson Johnson III of Mobile, Ala., who lost a kidney in a mortar attack last year in Iraq, was still recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when he received notice from the Pentagon's own collection agency that he owed more than $2,700 because he could not fulfill his full 36-month tour of duty.

Johnson said the Pentagon listed the bonus on his credit report as an unpaid government loan, making it impossible for him to rent an apartment or obtain credit cards.

"Oh man, I felt betrayed," Johnson said. "I felt, like, oh, my heart dropped."

Pentagon officials said they were unaware of the case until it was brought to their attention by ABC News. "Some faceless bureaucrat" was responsible for Johnson's predicament, said Gen. Franklin "Buster" Hagenbeck, a three-star general and the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel.

"It's absolutely unacceptable. It's intolerable," said Hagenbeck. "I mean, I'm incredulous when I hear those kinds of things. I just can't believe that we allow that to happen. And we're not going to let it happen."

The Department of Defense and the Army intervened to have the collection action against Johnson stopped, said Hagenbeck.

"I was told today he's not going to have a nickel taken from him," he said. "And I will tell you that we'll keep a microscope on this one to see the outcome."

'Not So Good'

Hagenbeck also pledged to look into the cases of the other soldiers ABC News brought to the military's attention, including men who lost limbs and their former livelihoods after serving in Iraq.

"When you're in the military, they take good care of you," said the 23-year-old Johnson. "But now that I'm a vet, and, you know, I'm out of the military -- not so good. Not so good."

Johnson had been flying high last September, after being promoted from Army private first class to specialist in a field ceremony in Iraq. Inspired by his father's naval background to join the military after high school, Tyson planned a career in the military and the promotion was just the first step. But only a week after the ceremony took place, a mortar round exploding outside his tent brought him quickly back to Earth.

"It was like warm water running down my arms," he said. "But it was warm blood."

In addition to the lost kidney, shrapnel damaged Johnson's lung and heart, and entered the back of his head. Field medical reports said he was not expected to live more than 72 hours.

With the help of exceptional Army surgeons, Johnson survived. As he recuperated, however, Johnson faced perhaps an even greater obstacle than physical pain or injuries -- the military bureaucracy.

Part of the warrior ethos, the soldier's creed of the U.S. Army, is to "never leave a fallen comrade."

"And it doesn't just pertain to the battlefield," Hagenbeck said. "It means, when we get them home they're a part of the Army family forever."

But Johnson now lives in his car. It is where he spends most of his days, all of his nights, in constant pain from his injuries and unwilling to burden his family.

Better Off Dead?

Stories like Tyson Johnson's are not unique.

Many of the severely wounded soldiers returning from Iraq face the prospect of poverty and what they describe as official indifference and incompetence.

"Guys I've met, talking to people, they'd be better off financially for their families if they had died as opposed to coming back maimed," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Kelly, who served as a civil affairs specialist for the Army while in Iraq.

On July 14, 2003, the Abilene, Texas, native had been on his way to a meeting about rebuilding schools in Iraq when his unarmored Humvee was blown up. A piece of shrapnel the size of a TV remote took his right leg off, below the knee, almost completely, Kelly said.

Kelly attests to receiving excellent medical care at Ward 57, the amputee section of Walter Reed, but said he quickly realized that the military had no real plan for the injured soldiers. Many had to borrow money or depend on charities just to have relatives visit at Walter Reed, Kelly said.

"It's not what I expected to see when I got here," he said. "These guys having to, you know, basically panhandle for money to afford things."

No Answer

Perhaps as a sign of the grim outlook facing many of these wounded soldiers, Staff Sgt. Peter Damon, a National Guardsman from Brockton, Mass., said he is grateful for being a double amputee.

"Well, in a way, I'm kind of lucky losing both arms because I've been told I'll probably get 100 percent disability," he said.

Damon, a mechanic and electrician, lost both arms in an explosion as he was repairing a helicopter in Iraq. He initially woke up in the hospital worried and anxious to learn that both forms of livelihood were taken away from him.

"Now what am I doing to do?" Damon said, faced with the prospect of supporting his wife, Jennifer, and two children. "I can't do either, none of those, with no hands."

The military fails to provide a lump sum payment for such catastrophic injuries. And Damon still has not heard from the military about what they plan to give in terms of monthly disability payments.

The last time Damon asked about the payments, he was told by the military that his paperwork had been lost.

"And then when I went to go back to inquire about it again, just to ask a question, I just wanted to see if they had found my paperwork, I was told I had to make an appointment and to come back five days later," he said.

A thick book of federal regulations specifies the disability rate based on how many limbs were amputated and precisely where.

The percentage rates were set during World War II.

Jennifer Damon said the shock of her husband returning with no arms has been replaced by the fear of destitution, as well as a frustration over her husband's final discharge. Like his disability benefits, Peter's release is being held up by the lost paperwork and unanswered phone calls.

"It's hard to understand," she said. "I mean, I need him more than they need him right now. It's been a long time. You've had him for a long time. I want him back."

A Failing System?

Staff Sgt. Larry Gill, a National Guardsman from Semmes, Ala., wonders whether his 20 dutiful years of military service have been adequately rewarded.

Last October, Gill injured his left leg when on patrol during a protest outside a mosque in Baghdad. A protester threw a hand grenade which left Gill, a former policeman, with leg intact, though useless. He received a Purple Heart from the military, but no program, plan or proposal of how to make a living in civilian life.

"It's not fair, and I'm not complaining," Gill said. "I'm not whining about it. You know, I just, I just don't think people really understand what we're being faced with.

Gill expects he will have to sell his home, the dream house he and his wife, Leah, designed and built, where they raised their children.

"I've never questioned my orders," he said. "I've slept with rats and stood in the rain and wondered why I was standing in the rain, and, you know, for my children to have to do without based on a lack of income from me, it's frustrating."

Leah Gill agreed. "I just don't feel we should have to uproot because of an injury that he received while he was serving the country," she said. "It shouldn't come down to that."

Gill and the others in Ward 57 have had their pictures taken frequently with visiting politicians.

"Where are the politicians? Where are the generals?" he asked. "Where are the people that are supposed to take care of me?"

Help and care will be forthcoming, promised Hagenbeck.

"There in fact was a plan," he said. "But again, it was not integrated in a seamless fashion that it needed to be. And that was not even, really, to be honest with you, recognized probably until sometime about a year ago. And these soldiers actually brought it to our attention about the transition problems."

The military would do a better job of taking care of their own, Hagenbeck said, though the system in place was often unwieldy, outdated and inadequate.

"Oh, there absolutely has been problems in the past," Hagenbeck said. "And they're in -- even with some of our soldiers today. Some missteps have been made. And they have not been taken care of the way they should have been taken care of."

Loyal Soldiers

To help these neglected soldiers, Hagenbeck said, the military created an advocacy program this past April called Disabled Soldier Support System, or DS3. The network is set up to fight for a soldier's benefits and entitlements, ease transition to civilian life, and deal with any other problems facing a disabled soldier, according to Hagenbeck.

But still there are soldiers like Johnson who fall through the cracks.

His mother, Willie Jean Johnson, worries her son may hurt himself.

"He's not going to say anything bad about the Army," she said. "I have never heard him say anything bad about it. But you can see the hurt in his eyes. You can see the hurt from his heart in his eyes."

Johnson said he usually keeps to himself, preferring to protect his son from seeing him in his current state. "I'd rather be to myself than to flare at somebody else and, you know, and hurt someone that I know I really love," he said.

One year after nearly being killed in combat, the Pentagon has yet to send Johnson his Purple Heart medal.

The Pentagon collection notices, however, arrive without fail.

As to Kelly's discovery that he and his wounded comrades had to beg and borrow to pay for their loved ones to visit while they recuperate, Hagenbeck said a new policy went into effect this weekend to alleviate part of the problem.

"There was no system in place to support them in their needs. And I'll be honest with you, until it came to our attention, to people that were paying attention, and then those that wanted to help, that obstacle was there," Hagenbeck said.

Incredibly, these soldiers remain dedicated to the military despite all they have endured.

"Even though the way I'm being treated, you know, as a vet, I'd still go back in," Johnson said. "I would."

"I love being a soldier," Kelly said. "I don't regret what happened. If I had to go back to Iraq knowing that there was that chance of losing my leg, I'd do it. Because that's what the nation asked me to do."

Jessica Wang contributed to this report.


Following the airing of this report on PrimeTime Live, Congressman John Dingell (D-MI), a former infantryman, wrote a letter to the Pentagon demanding a progress report on the recently implemented Disabled Soldier Support System and further assurance that all wounded and disabled vets would be financially and otherwise assisted in making the transition to civilian life. "I am astonished by this story and disappointed," Dingell wrote, "that we are failing to fulfill our nation's duty to care for our injured veterans."