Group Seeks Government Fix for Veterans' Issues
By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 4, 2006 A grassroots group in Chicago hopes to help create a better system of support for servicemembers returning from the global war on terrorism.
America Supports You member group Wounded Heroes Foundation Inc. is finding ways to smooth bureaucratic issues for wounded troops. Here, Anna Sherony, the group's co-founder, poses with Marine 1st Sgt. Brad Kasal at the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., Jan. 1, 2005. Kasal was wounded in Fallujah, Iraq, in November 2004. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"Why should a family that has given so much already to this country be asked to sacrifice their American dream?" said Anna Sherony, the mother of a Marine who helped found "Wounded Heroes Foundation Inc."
The foundation is a nonprofit started by Sherony and Cristov Dosev, a former Marine aviator. They believe addressing a few specific concerns will make homecoming much more bearable for veterans, especially those severely wounded.
The organization's concerns include:
- The need for qualified help with financial paperwork;
- The need to fill gaps in monthly pay between troops' medical retirement and the start of their Veterans Affairs benefits; and
- The need for long-term help for veterans and their families, whose lives will always be affected by injuries.
Sherony started working with wounded troops in fall 2003. She said she has seen several families go bankrupt or lose their homes as they tried to strike a balance between staying at their loved one's side and keeping up obligations back home.
A big success for wounded troops came in December, when the Department of Veterans Affairs began providing automatic traumatic injury coverage to all troops injured while deployed since Oct. 7, 2001, as long as they're covered by Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, Sherony said.
"From my understanding, the execution of it has been fabulous," Sherony said.
As the policy went into effect, military hospitals made sure experts were available to guide troops and their families through the new paperwork, Sherony said. The VA also created an easy-to-follow chart that showed clearly who was eligible to receive benefits and what those benefits would be.
"I would love to find whoever came up with this ... and give them a big hug," she said. "Someone was really thinking. ... It took them about a year to implement, but they really did it right."
The policy doesn't distinguish between troops who are wounded by direct enemy action and those injured in other ways while deployed, which is a commonsense and effective way to give wounded troops what they deserve, Sherony said.
Although the insurance payout does not solve long-term problems for the permanently injured, it does help families stay away from having to sell their homes or use their life's savings while they travel to aid their loved ones' recovery, she said.
Knowing successes like that are possible, Sherony said her group has compiled a simple list and begun collaborating with people in national government to see what else can be done to make the bureaucratic journey smoother for wounded veterans. "They're pretty simple things that really take the burden away from our wounded heroes who have sacrificed so much already," she said.
For example, Sherony said, some laws on compensation for amputees should be reviewed. If both of a servicemember's hands and arms are amputated below the elbows, that person is eligible for a one-time lump sum of $10,000 from the VA. If the amputation is above the elbows, that compensation jumps to $50,000.
Another way to ease the financial burden might come from better coordination between departments serving wounded troops. "The Department of Defense (processes) our kids out or they voluntarily (leave), but they have to wait six to nine months for their VA benefits," Sherony said. She suggested troops not be discharged from the military until their VA benefits are in place.
Dosev, the foundation's co-chair and a retired Marine major, said helping the government find effective solutions to problems like these would allow the group to do much more for returning troops.
"(It would) do nine-tenths of our work because then we could focus on moral support, introducing them to mentors at college, or introducing them to folks in their community that can help them heal and get back into the workforce, whatever it is they have ambitions to do," Dosev said. "We don't want to be fighting bureaucracies. That's not an effective use of our time and effort."
Sherony said the group believes energy bills and property taxes are the two most problematic financial issues for disabled veterans in the long term. Eventually, the foundation hopes to persuade the government to get rid of property taxes for veterans who have received a 100-percent disability rating from the VA and allow nonprofit groups like theirs to build solar-powered, self-sufficient homes for those veterans.
For the time being, the all-volunteer foundation uses money it raises to help families get back on their feet, Dosev said. They help pay mortgages and energy bills, and grant money for plane tickets and hotel rooms so families don't have to choose between staying with their loved ones or making ends meet.
In March, the group joined America Supports You, a Defense Department program highlighting corporate and grassroots support for America's troops and their families. Dosev said he is proud to be a member of ASY and looks forward to using the connections it provides to better serve wounded troops.
"We're by no means the only organization out there helping," he said. "We're just hoping that through our efforts we might be able to ... help these guys and these women get back on their feet and back into society as effectively as we can."
He said modern medicine saves many more troops wounded on the battlefield than in previous conflicts. "They are here now with us, and we have a responsibility to do what we can to help them," Dosev said.