A Wounded Vet’s Vital Mission

Ever since Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Kelly lost his right leg to a roadside bomb near Baghdad more than a year ago, he has been on a mission. It was more than just learning how to walk again on a prosthetic limb or figuring out what to do with his life after 13 months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Kelly, 24, of Prescott, Ariz., saw a need to help other wounded soldiers and their families cope with the financial struggles that come with months of rehabilitation.

In the past month, Kelly and an advocacy group for veterans have persuaded several lawmakers to support the idea of creating a self-financed insurance plan that would award $50,000 to severely disabled soldiers before Veterans Affairs’ benefits kick in. The federal money can take a year or more to get to recipients.

“It would immediately relieve all the financial strains on the family and service member,” Kelly said. “To have that alleviated, it allows the family to focus on the rehab.”

The idea of allow those in the military to buy a new kind of disability insurance for a low monthly fee is supported by Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz. He said he plans to introduce legislation that would make that happen.

“I don’t know how you could say no to this,” Renzi said in an interview. “There’s these burgeoning costs that go with the families of these wounded guys that many times aren’t covered.”

VA spokesman Terry Jemison said the agency is familiar with Kelly’s idea, but has not taken a position on it. The Pentagon would not comment on the plan.

Injured soldiers become eligible for VA benefits after their discharge. But it can be more than a year before those benefits are available, based on the recovery period. Soldiers continue receiving military pay during hospitalization, but often the money does not cover all of a family’s expenses.

Extended hospital stays can require a soldier’s spouse or parent to leave work for months at a time, depriving the family of income and sometimes meaning costly travel costs during a stressful time. Also, many soldiers are reservists earning less than in their civilian jobs. Long recoveries only extend the difficulties.

Marine Lance Cpl. Ian Lennon, 25, of Lindenhurst, N.Y., said his mother took a leave of absence from her job to take care of him after he was burned over one-third of his body in a fuel tank accident in Kuwait.

“As I was going through rehab, I was thinking, `Am I going to have a place to go when I come home because didn’t know if we could keep making payments on the house,'” said Lennon, who spent a year at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

Kelly heard story after story about soldiers losing homes or racking up debt during their convalescence. He began working on a solution with officials at United Spinal Association, a group that serves both veterans and nonveterans.

Renzi, a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the timing is right because of President Bush’s proposal to increase life insurance and “death gratuity” payments to families of troops killed in combat.

“I think the chances are great that this thing could move,” said Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., who plans to co-sponsor the legislation. “It can be a godsend.”

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the committee’s former chairman, also plans to sign on.

Soldiers would pay about $3 per month, deducted from their pay, to qualify for a $50,000 payment in the event of a major injury in combat or training related to combat. The money would go out within days to soldiers who lose a limb or use of a limb, suffer severe burns, or lose their sight, hearing or speech.

More than 10,000 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of combat operations. Based on Defense Department statistics analyzed by United Spinal, only about 1,000 of them probably would qualify for the new benefit. If most soldiers pay into the plan, Kelly said, it should more than cover the expense of payouts.

“It doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny, it pays for itself and it benefits soldiers. Where is there a fault in that?” Kelly said.

Stephen Wurtz, deputy assistant director for insurance for the VA, said the estimate of 1,000 severely disabled soldiers per year qualifying for the payment was “within the ballpark.”

Renzi said he is not sure the $3 figure is enough. Regardless of the cost, though, he said his bill would let soldiers have the benefit “even if the government has to subsidize that product.”

On the Net:

United Spinal Association: http://www.unitedspinal.org/

Veterans Affairs Department: http://www.va.gov/

© 2005 The Associated Press