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Troops Shortchanged on Disability Benefits

Associated Press | June 07, 2007

Vet Group, Lawyers Team to Help Soldiers

WASHINGTON (AP) - The nation's largest organization of disabled veterans is convinced that injured troops are being shortchanged on disability benefits and have hired lawyers to help them. The Disabled American Veterans is teaming up with three major law firms. It says that injured troops - many of them returning from Iraq and Afghanistan - are getting only a fraction of the government benefits they are entitled to under federal law.

Their new partnership, announced Wednesday, is aimed at exerting additional pressure on a Defense Department they say remains inattentive to veterans' needs. Lawsuits could quickly follow in federal court.

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Ronald L. Smith, deputy general counsel for DAV, said the Pentagon has been responsive in correcting problems of mold, peeling paint and cockroaches in outpatient rooms following reports earlier this year of shoddy treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

But little has been done about the Army's unwieldy disability ratings system, Smith said. Earlier this year, retired Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, chairman of the federal Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission, suggested to Congress there could be a systematic effort to underrate disabilities to lower benefits and keep military costs down.

A preliminary review by Scott's group of Pentagon and Veterans Affairs data found the Army was much more likely than the other active forces to assign a disability rating of less than 30 percent - the typical cutoff - to determine whether a person can get lifetime retirement payments and health care. "These injustices are severe compared to the peeling paint at Walter Reed," Smith said, calling the disparities "inexplicable."

The three law firms - King & Spalding, Foley & Lardner and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae - will begin to provide lawyers free of charge to patients at Walter Reed, which typically hears 80 cases a month.

The focus will be providing legal representation before the Army's physical and medical evaluation boards, which the Pentagon has acknowledged is unwieldy. Currently, injured Soldiers may receive some help from groups such as DAV or military lawyers whom veterans advocates say are more loyal to the Army system.

Depending on response, the effort may be expanded to military hospitals elsewhere, with lawsuits filed to force compliance with federal law, which requires that the "benefit of the doubt" be given to veterans in disability claims.

Lawyers said they looked forward to ensuring that injured Soldiers get "every benefit they are entitled under the law."

"Whatever our view is on current conflicts in the world, whether Iraq or Afghanistan, injured Soldiers should receive the level of service that they have given us," said Steven Lambert, who chairs the pro bono committee in Foley & Lardner's Washington office.
"That simply is not occurring, and that is wrong," he said.

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