His lifelong dream of becoming a soldier had, in the end, come to this for Isaac Stevens: 28, penniless, in a wheelchair, fending off the sexual advances of another man in a homeless shelter.
Stevens’ descent from Army private first-class, 3rd Infantry Division, 11 Bravo Company, began in 2005 — not in battle, since he was never sent off to Iraq or Afghanistan, but with a headfirst fall over a wall on the obstacle course at Fort Benning, Ga. He suffered a head injury and spinal damage.
The injury alone didn’t put him in a homeless shelter. Instead, it was military bureaucracy — specifically, the way injured soldiers are discharged on just a fraction of their salary and then forced to wait six to nine months, and sometimes even more than a year, before their full disability payments begin to flow.
"When I got out, I hate to say it, but man, that was it. Everybody just kind of washed their hands of me, and it was like, `OK, you’re on your own,’" said Stevens, who was discharged in November and was in a shelter by February. He has since moved into a temporary San Antonio apartment with help from Operation Homefront, a nonprofit organization.
Nearly 20,000 disabled soldiers were discharged in the past two fiscal years, and lawmakers, veterans’ advocates and others say thousands could be facing financial ruin while they wait for their claims to be processed and their benefits to come through.
"The anecdotal evidence is depressing," said Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., who heads a subcommittee on veterans disability benefits. "These veterans are getting medical care, but their family is going through this huge readjustment at the same time they’re dealing with financial difficulties."
Most permanently disabled veterans qualify for payments from Social Security and the military or Veterans Affairs. Those sums can amount to about two-thirds of their active-duty pay. But until those checks show up, most disabled veterans draw a reduced Army paycheck.
The amount depends on the soldier’s injuries, service time and other factors. But a typical veteran and his family who once lived on $3,400 a month might have to make do with $970 a month.
Unless a soldier has a personal fortune or was so severely injured as to require long-term inpatient care, that can be an extreme hardship.
The Army, stung by the scandal last year over shoddy care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, has been working to help soldiers during the in-between period, said Col. Becky Baker, assigned to injured soldier transition at the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office.
In a change in policy that took effect last August, the Army is allowing wounded soldiers to continue to draw their full Army paychecks for up to 90 days after discharge, Baker said. It is also sending more VA workers to Army posts to process claims more quickly, and trying to do a better job of informing soldiers of the available benefits and explaining the application process.
"We make certain that we’ve covered all the bases before we discharge the soldier," Baker said.
She acknowledged, however, that the changes have been slow to take hold across an Army stretched by war. "It’s definitely a practice that is new. It takes awhile for new practices to be institutionalized," the colonel said.
Stevens was moved to the Operation Homefront apartment after a social worker at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, acting on her own initiative, rescued Stevens from a homeless shelter there.
"This is a situation where someone used their common sense and they did the right thing, versus saying, `This is the rules. We can’t do this,’" Tripler spokeswoman Minerva Anderson said of the social worker.
Typically, the first 100 days after discharge are spent just gathering medical and other evidence needed to make a decision on disability, VA officials say. If paperwork is incomplete, or a veteran moves to another state before the claim is decided, the process can drag on longer. Disagree with the VA’s decision, and the wait time grows.
"The claims are a lot more complicated than people think," said Ursula Henderson, director of the VA’s regional office in Houston.
Amy Palmer, a disabled veteran and vice president of Operation Homefront, which helps newly disabled servicemembers, said: "Nobody’s assigned to them. You’re on your own once you get out."
Hall is pushing legislation that would force the VA to use compatible computer systems and more consistent criteria and to reach out to veterans better.
"A veteran goes and serves and does what the country asks them to do," the congressman said. "But when they come back they’re made to jump through these hoops and to wait in line for disability benefits."
Simon Heine served three tours in Iraq as a tank mechanic before he was discharged with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
His wife quit college so she could figure out how her four children could live on less than $1,000 a month. Eventually, she moved the family of six into an Operation Homefront apartment so they could finish navigating the bureaucracy and wait out the arrival of Social Security and VA benefits.
"It is like giving you a car and taking the steering wheel off. They say, `There is the gas and the brake. Just go straight,’ and hopefully, you are going in the right direction," Heine said.
On the Net:
Operation Homefront: http://www.operationhomefront.net