Injured vets: What do they get

For disabled soldiers, navigating the compensation command chain can get tricky.

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By George Mannes, Money Magazine senior writer

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NEW YORK (Money) -- Following last year's exposés of neglect at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one might get the impression that soldiers injured in action are simply dumped by the armed forces with little care or compensation.

In fact, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs offer a variety of benefits for soldiers wounded in service. The complexities of calculating these benefits can sometimes be baffling, and the money may seem insufficient compensation at times for the lasting trauma inflicted on wounded soldiers and their families. But the amount of compensation, which comes in a variety of forms, is edging upwards.

Wounded warrior insurance

As was the case with Ivan Castro, soldiers who suffer major injuries can soon thereafter get a payout from what is informally known as wounded warrior insurance. (Formally, it's Traumatic Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, or TSGLI.) Payouts range from $25,000 to $100,000, based on the nature of the injury; losing sight in one eye, for example, pays $50,000.

A key ingredient in determining subsequent compensation is the severity of wounded servicemen's disabilities, determined by medical evaluation boards that officially rate the seriousness of their disabilities.

Ratings go from zero to 100 percent, in increments of 10 percent; amputation of one leg below the knee, for example, translates into a 40% disability, while losing both feet or being blinded in both eyes counts as 100%.

If a serviceman is medically discharged from the army (the medical board's rating is influential, but not the final word) with a disability rating of at least 30%, he receives a medical pension, formally, a "disability retirement" from the Department of Defense, calculated on the basis of the severity of the disability or length of service.

For example, an enlisted man with a 30% disability - whose base pay on active duty is about $1,800 a month - would receive about $550 a month (with cost-of-living adjustments), according to Mike Hayden, deputy government relations director of the Military Officers Association of America. If the disability stems from combat-related injuries, the payouts are tax-free.

Disability compensation from the VA

Another stream of income, upon discharge, is disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs, based on the VA's disability rating. That currently ranges from $115 a month for a 10% disability, to $2471 for 100%, with additional payouts for factors including spouses, dependent children, conditions limiting a veteran's self-sufficiency.

Healthcare benefits, too, are dependent on the degree of disability. Generally if the rating is 50% or greater, the veteran qualifies for free healthcare for life. Less than that, and the vet gets free lifetime care from the VA for that disability and access to additional care at reduced cost. (A vet coming out of the army gets access to primary care for five years.)

Other special benefits for wounded soldiers include up to $50,000 to adapt their homes to their disabilities, and vocational training.

While the numerically-based disability rating system may sound scientific, there's a lot of leeway when medical boards assign a number - particularly with less physically obvious diagnoses such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Department of Defense has low-balled disability ratings in the past, says Hayden, but now appears to be on its way to making fairer ratings.

In any case, navigating all these benefits can be a challenge. Tom Zampieri, director of government relations for the Blinded Veterans Association, says that injured soldiers often get so overwhelmed by all the information they get about possible benefits that they just shut down and ignore it all.

"They'll say to me, 'It's too much,'" he says. "The first couple of months, they're just trying to recover. All they're thinking about is, 'Will I walk and can I feed myself?'"

- Send feedback to George Mannes at gmannes@moneymail.com. To top of page

More of a soldier's story:

Race to the finish

Financial rehab
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