How the Military Has Repaid Iraq Vets With Permanent Disabilities

Military called brain damage and destroyed spleen a "10 percent" disability.


Mar. 20, 2008— -- A year ago, while filming the documentary "To Iraq and Back", I had the opportunity to meet so many injured veterans and get to know their families. Today, it is heartening to see they are all still recovering and making strides both large and small.

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Despite their progress, challenges remain for all these families. As they continue to face the everyday challenges of living with a brain injury, some of these veterans are also locked in a struggle with the military to get the disability payments they believe they deserve.

I first met Army Sgt. Will Glass and his wife, Amelia, at the Bethesda Naval Hospital a year and a half ago.

After being injured in Taji, Iraq, Glass, a native of northern California, lay in a coma for two weeks and had part of his skull removed. His hands were crushed and his left eye was gone.

Glass is just one of tens of thousands of American G.I.'s who have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries (TBI). This week marks the fifth year that U.S. military forces have been in Iraq, and doctors estimate that as many as 10-15 percent of returning troops will have TBI from their exposure to blasts.But today in northern California, there is some normalcy returning to Glass's life. He 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 such as e 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," Glass said. "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."

A year ago, Marine Sgt. Shurvon Phillip 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," Phillip's mother, Gail Ulerie, told Woodruff. "Slowly but surely, you know. It's a long process but my baby is making it."

Phillip'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."

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

A year and a half ago, Michael Boothby could not walk. But in the fall, after extensive physical therapy, we saw him run.

Now, he enjoys jumping 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."

Since Michael's injury, the Boothbys have been frustrated — even angry — as the military and veterans medical systems strained to meet their needs. When they left a Florida VA hospital to begin therapy at home in Texas, Michael's paperwork was delayed and his condition deteriorated.

Even though he is finally doing much better physically, the Boothbys still have obstacles ahead of them. Just this month, the Boothbys received the Department of Defense ruling that Michael had been granted only a 70 percent temporary disability rating.

That means the family of five — with one more on the way any day now — will have to make due on 70 percent of their previous income.

Boothby's temporary disability rating will be reevaluated annually, even though 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," said Megan, Boothby's wife.

The Boothbys plan to appeal their rating.

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. Nearly two years ago, a roadside bomb in Iraq ripped through his Humvee and put him in a coma for 30 days, crushing his skull into the left side of his brain, and leaving him with a severe traumatic brain injury.

With a warrior's determination, he has made a remarkable physical recovery, and 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.

The blast left Landay with liver damage and doctors had to remove both his spleen and damaged tissue from his brain after the blast.

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

The answer shocked them.

"Ten 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."

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

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 former Sen. Bob Dole and former Health Secretary Donna Shalala released its suggestions last summer.

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.

Most of the survivors we talked to feel lucky to be alive and are dreaming of their futures.

When asked what he sees up ahead, Glass laughed. "I'll be in a big mansion," he said.

And for Phillip's mother, the dream is to see her son walk again someday.

She said confidently, "Miracles do happen."

MEENA HARTENSTEIN contributed to this report.