Soldiers criticize Wounded Warrior Program at Fort Bragg

January 6, 2008 4:46:31 PM PST
It took Jay Erwin two months to find the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program on Fort Bragg.

When he finally found the program's representative -- Clyde Foster -- he was told that he might not be injured enough.

"I'm not sure if your injuries are significant enough to become a member," Erwin said Foster told him without seeing his medical records.

Erwin was hit September 2006 by a mortar that peppered his leg, neck and knee with shrapnel during a mission in Iraq.

"I have all my parts, but they just don't work right," Erwin said. He still can't use some of his fingers.

Foster denies telling Erwin that he wasn't injured enough. "I would never tell a soldier he wasn't injured enough," Foster said. "(The program) is there for them. We alleviate the bureaucracy so that they can concentrate on their recovery."

But three Fort Bragg paratroopers from the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment tell a different story. The Army Wounded Warrior Program they experienced was difficult to get into and provided no support.

Erwin, Matthew Bushong and Staff Sgt. Bryan McNees all were injured when a mortar landed near them while on a mission in September 2006. Bushong lost the use of his right hand because of nerve damage, and McNees' right leg was shattered. Doctors rebuilt it at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He spent several months bedridden and in a wheelchair, but he now walks with a slight limp.

Erwin and Bushong are both medically retired.

Almost 2,400 injured soldiers -- 34 at Fort Bragg -- are enrolled in the Wounded Warrior program. The program has existed since 2004, initially under the name Disabled Soldiers Support System. The Wounded Warrior Program was created to ensure that wounded soldiers and their families receive all the benefits and support they are entitled to.

It took a year for Erwin to get into the program.

"That whole year, I was just floating," he said.

Foster said there is always room for improvement.

"Sometimes the process doesn't work as fast as we'd like," Foster said. "Nothing can happen fast enough for the soldiers and their families."

Erwin, McNees and Bushong say drastic improvements are needed. They came forward because they worry about the more severely injured paratroopers who are too injured to fight for their benefits.

Foster said the paratroopers' requests were delayed because it took time to determine the extent of their injuries and how they would respond to treatment. Wounded soldiers must meet a 30 percent disability threshold to get into the program. Thirty percent disability allows the soldiers to keep their medical insurance even after they are retired.

In order to get a 30 percent rating, a soldier usually suffers from a loss of vision or a limb, paralysis or other permanent injuries. The rating is based on the Physical Disability Evaluation System.

Foster, who served 26 years in the military, said he doesn't determine who gets into the program. When a soldier comes in, Foster said he starts the intake process. Once the soldier is in the system, his file is sent to U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Alexandria, Va. Human Resources Command determines if the soldier is eligible.

The process can take anywhere from a few days to a few months to determine, Foster said. But Foster said he doesn't wait.

"When I do an intake, I start providing a service at that time," he said.

His caseload is about 35 to 1. His four-person office -- located on the fifth floor of Womack Army Medical Center -- takes care of the 102 wounded soldiers statewide. Foster said he helps with veterans benefits and provides information about programs and job placement.

McNees said he got very little information after his first meeting. After several e-mails to Foster went unanswered over a three-month period, he sent an e-mail to the program's office in Washington. The next day, McNees was in the program.

"If I hadn't pestered him, it might not have happened at all," McNees said.

Everybody seemed to get into the program after McNees' October e-mail. Bushong and Erwin were admitted soon after.

"Nobody was getting in, and now everybody is getting in," Bushong said.

Foster said the program is trying to empower wounded soldiers but will be around for the long haul if the soldiers ever need assistance. Foster said the program contacts soldiers who are just out of the Army once a month.

After six months, they only contact them quarterly and after two years only semiannually.

All three paratroopers say they've never been contacted. Erwin left Fort Bragg this summer and lives in Kansas.

"As soon as I left the Army, I didn't hear from them," Erwin said. "It is kind of an ongoing mess."

McNees is still at Fort Bragg and hasn't heard from Foster or the Wounded Warrior Program.

"This is something that is supposed to provide care and resources," McNees said. "I don't have very good faith in receiving much help from them."


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