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Help Sought for Hurt Soldiers' Families

In its final weeks before issuing a final report, the nine-member commission heard testimony on the support available to loved ones of those hurt in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There's no question that there is no system in place for continuing care," said former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who co-chairs the Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors with former GOP Sen. Bob Dole. "What we'd all like to see is a seamless system that provides relief to the families."

Sarah Wade, wife of Army Sgt. Ted Wade, detailed an endless cycle of paperwork lost by the military after her husband's Humvee was hit by an explosive in Iraq that caused him traumatic brain injury and severed his right arm.

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Often waiting hours on end on a telephone help line that yielded little information, Wade said it took her two years to get the necessary paperwork and fix other errors that resulted in lapsed government disability checks.

In addition, since medical facilities near their home in Chapel Hill, N.C., were inadequate, the Wades paid for extra travel to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to get needed treatment. Eventually, Sarah Wade said, her employer fired her, saying she was inflexible and "had too much going on in her life."

"I threw my hands up because I don't know what to do any more," Wade told the commission. "There just aren't enough hours in the day for me to be advocate, attendant, driver, personal assistant and spouse."

"No one will take ownership of the problems," she added. "I don't know if it's because no one is able to tell the emperor he has no clothes."

The war in Iraq has had more women and younger troops in combat. As a result, more mothers, wives, sisters and even grandmothers are taking on full-time roles in providing care to injured loved ones when government health care falls short, often at the expense of their jobs, veterans advocates say.

Legislation approved by a Senate committee last week aims to correct some of the problems by authorizing some family members who are caring for those injured in combat situations to receive travel and other health assistance from military and Veterans Affairs providers.

President Bush created the presidential commission on March 6 to investigate veterans care following reports of shoddy outpatient treatment at Walter Reed. After several hearings on disability ratings, brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, the committee will hold its final public hearing next week. Its final report is due in late July.

In interviews, commission members said one of the biggest problems is providing health care that allows injured troops to move from facility to facility as needed without delays or lost paperwork, regardless of whether they are using a Pentagon or VA-run facility or private health provider.

They also said their report would seek to supplement the work of several congressional committees. One measure approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee would require joint electronic medical records, expand brain screenings and work to end inconsistencies in disability pay by providing for a special review of cases in which service members receive low ratings of their level of disability.

Dole said the final report would not be a "laundry list of ideas," but instead present a practical set of recommendations aimed at improving access and delivery of care.

"We've been pretty exhaustive in our review," Dole said. "We'll take a look at what's being done in Congress. They're doing their job, and we're doing ours.

"We may have a few alternative ideas," he added, citing a need in some cases for families to have free access to private medical care if no adequate government facility is available in their cities.

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