WASHINGTON – Staff Sgt. Nicholas Lanier has entered what he calls the "vast unknown." A combat veteran and father to four daughters, he can't remain in the military because of a serious back injury earned in Iraq.
But he can't yet accept a civilian job because he doesn't know when the military will discharge him. He has no clue how much the government will pay him in disability compensation related to his injury, so he can't make a future budget. He just waits.
"I don't have any idea what the end stat is going to be on the other side. When you have a family and you are trying to plan for the future, that's going to affect a lot of things," said Lanier, a 37-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., who walks with a limp because of related nerve damage. "The only known is that it takes time."
Thousands of troops are like Lanier: not fully fit to serve but in limbo for about two years waiting to get discharged under a new system that was supposed to be more efficient than its predecessor. And the delays are not only affecting service members, but the military's readiness as well. New troops can't enlist until others are discharged.
The government determines the pay and benefits given to wounded, sick or injured troops for their military service. Under the old system, a medical board would determine their level of military compensation and the service member would be discharged. Then the veteran essentially would have to go through the process again with the Veterans Affairs Department to determine benefits. While they waited for their VA claim to be processed, many of the war wounded were going broke.
Under the new system, which started in 2007 and will be completely rolled out at military bases nationwide by the end of September, the service member essentially goes through both disability evaluation systems at the same time before leaving the military.
But the new, supposedly streamlined, system is still such a cumbersome process that it's leaving many service members in limbo, they say. A typical service member's case is handed off between the Defense Department and the VA nine times during the new integrated process. It typically starts about a year after a service member is injured, after it's clear that remaining on duty isn't possible, with a goal of 295 days to complete after that initial year. However, the average completion time after the initial year is more than 400 days, leaving the service member in limbo more than two years.
Each snag in the process sets a service member back from knowing the extent of benefits and time of discharge from the military. Troops have had to turn down job offers and delay starting college because they don't know when they can leave military service. And it adds stress on an already vulnerable population. As their cases are processed, many live in the military's outpatient warrior transition units, where they can get extra support, while others do work for the military that they are physically capable of doing.
Marine Cpl. Todd Nicely, 27, was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in March 2010 and had both arms and legs amputated. A piece of paper needing a signature as part of the disability evaluation process sat on a government official's desk for nearly 70 days until Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray intervened, Nicely's wife, Crystal, told Murray's committee.
"The process of transitioning out of the military has been particularly difficult," Crystal Nicely said. "I understand it's supposed to be a faster, more efficient way to complete evaluations and transition out of the military service. That has not been our experience."
The new system has some benefits. Wounded service members no longer face financial hardship as the VA claim is processed because they are still in the military and drawing military pay. Surveys show service members feel the system is fairer than the old one, said Philip A. Burdette, the principal director at the Defense Department's Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy. And for some, the extra time in the military gives them extra support.
The Army alone currently has more than 11,730 Guard, Reserve and active duty soldiers who are going through the new process, and more than a thousand soldiers from the three components enter the new system each month faster than troops are completing it.
"We are growing significantly every month," said Army Maj. Gen. Gary H. Cheek, the outgoing director of military personnel management. "We really don't have an indication of when this will level off, and we are doing everything that we can, even at the four-star level, to try and improve this process and get it to a reasonable time frame."
Cheek said it's not good for the Army or for soldiers living in limbo. After the initial year of care, he said, he'd like the military to make a simple determination if the service member is fit to serve. If not, he'd like to see the military accept the VA's rating and get out of the disability evaluation process all together, meaning the service member would receive one rating instead of two. His proposal would take about 90 days compared with the current 400, he said.
"For us, we just view it as the right thing to do. There should be a single rating for the soldier. We shouldn't be giving them two ratings. We are confusing them with that. From the Army's standpoint it's easier for us to say we think these costs are well spent. This is a fair way to do it," Cheek said. "All the effort we have to put into running this process, we could re-mission these resources into taking care of soldiers that we are trying to deploy."
Cheek's proposal would require a law change, and it could potentially cost hundreds of millions of dollars more a year.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said it's an option he's willing to consider because the system clearly has flaws.
"I'm not ready to say it's time to do that, but we have to figure out a way to marry the two ratings systems in a way that doesn't cause a delay for the veteran in getting the care and the benefits," Miller said.
Veterans Affairs Department: http://www.va.gov/
Defense Department: http://www.defense.gov/
Kimberly Hefling can be reached at http://twitter.com/khefling