Wounded Soldier's Take on the VA: They're Out of Sync and Out of Touch

ByNEAL KARLINSKY

March 5, 2007— -- Far from the halls of Congress, in a quiet rural Tennessee community, Sgt. Jason Pepper does his best to rebuild his shattered body without the help of the Veterans Benefits Administration.

"I could go to the VA in Nashville, but with my disgust and experiences with the VA, I choose not to," says the 29-year-old Iraq War vet who holds the Bronze Star With Valor for his actions underfire.

Following Bob Woodruff's special reports about his own experience with traumatic brain injury, or TBI, after a roadside bomb wounded him in Iraq, Pepper's wife wrote to ABC News to discuss her husband's battle for care.

"I am a wounded soldier's wife, and we have been dealing with these injuries for almost three years now," Heather Pepper wrote in an e-mail. "I can't say that it gets better, because for us it hasn't yet. My husband hasn't had any kind of treatment since he was retired on Dec. 31, 2005."

Pepper's long road home begins like so many others, with the deafening crack of an IED. It was May 2004 in Karbala, Iraq, when Pepper pushed two fellow soldiers out of harm's way in time to bear the brunt of an insurgent's roadside bomb. He was just 3 feet away.

The blast shredded both of Pepper's eyes -- leaving him blind. Three pieces of shrapnel were embedded in his skull, including one on his brain, which cannot be removed. And there are lingering problems with both arms as well. The 29-year-old jokingly calls his left hand "the cup holder," because it isn't capable of doing much more just yet.

"I need stuff to help me work on memory skills. My idea to work on repeating memory skills is to try to remember songs," Pepper says from his home.

This, of course, is not optimal, but the Army veteran with 10 years of service says he has little choice.

"I just don't talk to the VA -- except for prosthetics. Honestly, I think the VA is ill-equipped for the injuries that are coming back," he says.

Pepper's frustration is palpable as he recalls his return home to Tennessee after 18 months of excellent care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

He describes a VA system totally out of sync and seemingly out of touch with the rest of his Army medical experience.

First, he says he was told his records were no good because they weren't proper VA records. Pepper says he spent days traveling to various VA facilities for multihour tests that he'd just completed at Walter Reed. After one grueling seven-hour day, he says a VA staff member looked at his file and said, "Oh, you've already had this done."

"The left hand wasn't talking to the right hand once again," Pepper says. "And I would get letters about meetings [for coping with blindness], stating that a meeting is Tuesday but I wouldn't receive the letter until Wednesday. It kind of defeats the purpose."

He says his brain injury was "put on the back burner." Even though he has daily problems with memory and confusion if there are more than two people involved in a conversation, Pepper says he is currently receiving no help whatsoever from the VA for his brain injury.

Pepper says he has become so frustrated with the VA that he and his wife currently make the 90-minute drive to the nearest active duty Army hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky., because the quality of care is so much better.

Medical experts wrote about Pepper's troubles last year in the Dec. 21 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"He has sort of fallen through the cracks as far as medical care goes," says Dr. Susan Okie, contributing editor to the Journal. "He has made physically a fairly remarkable recovery considering how badly he was wounded, but he has significant residual medical problems and symptoms."

Pepper, now a father of two young children, sounds upbeat over the phone these days but admits there are days when he can't even get out of bed. He's been following the unfolding scandal over veterans' care and is more than a little skeptical that anything will change.

"It's gonna be out in the open for maybe six or eight months, then it's gonna go back to the way it was," he says. "Once it's not in the public's eye anymore, it goes away."

Amazingly, just one month from his 30th birthday, Pepper says he would do it all again if he had the chance.

"I'd still choose to serve. If I wasn't blind I'd be asking to join my unit and deploy again." But, he adds, "We held up our end of the commitment. Now it's time for the government to hold up their end of the bargain."

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