Injured Vets Struggle to Get Disability Help

It has been one year since we met so many injured veterans and got to know their families.  Today, it is heartening to see they are all still recovering and making strides — both large and small.  

But in addition to attending rehab and doctors' visits, some of these veterans are digging through paperwork and trying to fight for larger disability payments. 

'I Feel Way Lucky'

ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff first met Army Sgt. Will Glass and his wife, Amelia, at the Bethesda Naval Hospital a year and a half ago.

Glass had been in a coma for two weeks and part of his skull had been removed.  His hands were crushed and his left eye was gone.

But today in northern California, there is some normalcy returning to the Glasses' lives.

Glass has a new glass eye that moves almost like his right eye.  Although one of his fingers was lost, his grip is improving and he is even taking auto repair courses.

His confidence is up and he says people "don't stare anymore.  It's just like I'm a normal person to them."

The military has not yet determined Glass' disability or his future payments. 

Glass recently received military photographs from the bloody scene of the roadside attack that injured him. "I feel way lucky," Glass said, looking at the photograph.

"Some people would look at that and can't imagine that you would consider yourself lucky," Woodruff said. 

"Yeah, but I am happy to be alive," Glass said.

Glass now can perform daily tasks like dressing himself and feeding himself, giving his wife, she says, "a chance to get my life back."

When Woodruff asked what advice they would give other couples, the Glasses agreed. 

"Time heals all wounds," Amelia said.

"You just got to be a champ and just tough it out. I got injured in September 2006 and it's now 2008 and I am still going through it, and it just takes time and effort," Glass said.

'Slowly but Surely'

A year ago, Marine Sgt. Shurvon Philip of Cleveland could not speak and could hardly move.

Today, there are still no words, but his mother and brother can understand his yes and no responses by the movement of his eyelids.  

"He's getting there," Philip's mother, Gail Ulerie, told Woodruff.  "Slowly but surely, you know.  It's a long process, but my baby is making it."

Philip's recovery has been slight. He has gained about 20 pounds and he can be raised to a sitting position.

"He can't sit up by himself, he can't do that by himself … yet!"  Ulerie said.  "I'm not giving up hope."

The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs doctors have ruled that he has 100 percent disability and he will be supported for the rest of his life.

'It Doesn't Make Sense to Me'

A year and a half ago, Michael Boothby could not walk.

But in the fall, we saw him run.   This month we watched him jump on a trampoline with his three daughters at his home in Center Point, Texas.

"A year ago I couldn't pick them up at all," Boothby said.  "In the last six months, I'd say I've improved a little bit, but not that much."

Just this month, the Boothbys received the Department of Defense ruling that he has a 70 percent temporary disability.  The family of five — with one more on the way in March — will have to make due on 70 percent of their previous income.   

Boothby's temporary disability rating will be reevaluated annually, despite the fact that many of his injuries are permanent.  He has traumatic brain injury and has lost more than half of his vision in both eyes. 

"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."