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helping the vets

Posted by on Feb. 8, 2012 at 1:19 PM
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My organization featured in the news again yesterday! Proud of the work we do!

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PTSD Ruling Returns Benefits to Thousands of Vets

PTSD Ruling Returns Benefits to Thousands of Vets

Former airman Aimee Sherrod stopped going to the therapy sessions, even though she couldn’t get visions of exploding mortars out of her head.

Military officials told her in one breath that she couldn’t do her job because she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, but in the next breath said she was fine.

Sherrod received a 10 percent disability rating from the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2005, after the service medically discharged her. The senior airman had completed deployments to Pakistan, Jordan and Iraq in her four-year career. She left without even a military ID.

Even worse, she left questioning if there was anything wrong with her at all.

“I stopped going to sessions with the therapist because I figured since I got such a low rating that maybe nothing was wrong with me,” said Sherrod, 31, who spent most of her service inspecting aircraft, mostly rescue helicopters.

During her deployment to Camp Sather, Iraq, the enemy launched a mortar barrage on her portion of the flightline. She watched medics evacuate two airmen in her unit. At home, she still hears the whistles. The anxiety causes her to grind her teeth at night –so much that she broke a tooth.

Three years after her discharge, the Defense Department issued a memo mandating that service members diagnosed with PTSD receive a 50 percent rating when they retire. A 50 percent rating guarantees lifetime TRICARE medical coverage and tax-free retirement payments.

While the ruling has helped hundreds of veterans over the past four years, more than 4,000 veterans like Sherrod, who left the service between 2003 and 2008, didn’t have their records amended by the military corrections board.

That was until Dec. 22, when the U.S. Court of Federal Claims settled a class action lawsuit that ordered the Defense Department to adjust the records of the more than 2,000 veterans named in the case to reflect a 50 percent disability rating to those diagnosed with PTSD.

Judge George Miller’s ruling ordered the military to pay lifetime disability benefits to 1,029 veterans. It also increased the disability rating of another 1,066 veterans who have received disability benefits upon separation, but received a rating below 50 percent. The ruling also promised benefits to another 66 veterans who were class members, but had not yet completed their retirement benefits application through Veteran’s Affairs.

Miller’s December ruling ended a four-year battle between the military and veterans organized by the National Veterans Legal Services Program. Lawyers on both sides slogged through a legal back-and-forth that saw the military break promises that further delayed benefits reaching veterans.

Sherrod was lucky. Her husband is a pharmacist with medical benefits. Bart Stichman, NVLSP’s joint executive director, said many of the veterans who joined the class action lawsuit weren’t so fortunate.

“So many veterans contacted us who needed help and didn’t understand why the military wouldn’t help them,” Stichman said.

The Defense Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the ruling.

In most cases, veterans will receive back pay for missed retirement payments as well as medical charges they accrued since their discharge. Each veteran with a disability rating above 50 percent will qualify to purchase life insurance coverage through the Survivor Benefit Plan; lifetime commissary and military post exchange privileges; eligibility for Combat-Related Special Compensation; tax free retirement payments; and lifetime medical care for themselves, their spouse and their children up to age 18.

Stichman and his organization heard from frustrated veterans who didn’t understand why the military didn’t automatically adjust their ratings if they had a PTSD diagnosis in their record. The NVLSP enlisted the help of law firms that volunteer their time to represent veterans, such as Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.

The legal team requested a list of every veteran discharged between 2002 and 2008 with a record of PTSD. The team received a list of 4,400 veterans and immediately set up phone banks to contact each one. Over 2,100 joined.

“It’s very often the military doesn’t do things unless they are forced to do it, especially when it comes to personnel and those who are already out,” Stichman said.

When presented with the case, the military tried to sidestep going to court. Defense Department officials told Stichman a military board would immediately inspect the records of the each veteran who joined the lawsuit.

Stichman and his legal team never intended to sue for damages and felt this was a reasonable offer.

“We thought naively, but with good purpose, we could resolve the claims in one year. It turned out to be much, much more time consuming than what we had expected,” said Jim Kelley, a partner with Morgan Lewis who worked on the case.

Months went by and few veterans had their records reviewed by the military corrections board. Some would have had to wait seven years if the case hadn’t gone back to court, Kelley said.

“In retrospect, they shouldn’t have made this offer in the first place. They should have gone straight to what they’re doing in the settlement. Why they would represent to the court and us that they’d do it quickly -- and then they didn’t -- is the worst part,” Stichman said.

The courts lifted the moratorium set on the case and the veterans waited until Dec. 22, when the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled in their favor.

Stichman said the settlement would not set a precedent for future cases because the Defense Department had already set the bar for veterans suffering from PTSD by awarding a minimum 50 percent rating.

“This was about making sure the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who came before the ruling got help,” Stichman said.

For Sherrod, the disability payments will help, and the medical benefits will provide security for her family. But it’s the retiree identification card that will mean most to Sherrod.

She spent most of her life on Air Force bases, as both her parents retired from the service. Her discharge marked the first time she couldn’t get on a base and it hurt, she said.

“Yes, the medical benefits will help, but for me I just didn’t like the fact I couldn’t get on a base anymore. It was part of me and it didn’t feel right. Now I can go on base and it feels like part of my family,” Sherrod said.

Now a full-time mom to two sons and a daughter, Sherrod said she didn’t understand why it took so much legal maneuvering for her and the other veterans to receive the benefits they earned with their service.

“All along I hoped we would win, but I knew we would because too many veterans had gotten hurt and I knew the judge would have seen that,” she said.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

by on Feb. 8, 2012 at 1:19 PM
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