New Program Cuts Red Tape for Severely Disabled Soldiers
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 30, 2004 A new Army program will help severely disabled soldiers and their families cut through red tape so they can more easily tap into services available to them through the military and Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Disabled Soldier Support System DS3 for short gives wounded soldiers an additional way to seek out the help or information they need until they can return to active duty or receive a medical retirement from the Army.
Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee told Pentagon reporters today DS3 will help "ensure that no soldiers fall through the cracks" as they recover from their wounds and transition to the next stage of their lives and careers.
Brownlee said he hopes DS3 will serve as a pilot for the other military services. In the meantime, he said the Army program will help all severely disabled service members, regardless of the uniform they wear. "We won't turn anybody down," he said.
Rather than introducing a new service, DS3 serves as a clearinghouse for host of services already available through the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, Army officials explained. This gives disabled soldiers a single starting point for help with their financial, administrative, medical, vocational and other needs. It also helps them sort out the medical and vocational entitlements and other benefits for which they qualify.
The program's Web site went live today, and program staff can be reached toll- free at (800) 833-6622.
Anthony J. Principi, secretary of veterans affairs, said DS3 will eliminate any barriers soldiers may encounter as they move from care and services provided by the military to that provided by VA.
"I don't believe in red tape," Principi said. "If (soldiers come) to the Veterans Administration, we're going to take care of them and we'll worry about the paperwork later."
Of more than 12,000 soldiers who have been wounded or injured during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, 198 are considered severely disabled, meaning a medical board has determined that they have a 30 percent or greater disability, Army officials explained. These disabilities may involve loss of a limb or eye or paralysis.
Staff Sgt. Jerry Cortinas, a Special Forces soldier who lost his left hand and has limited use of his right arm after being attacked by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan, said DS3 helped him sort out the services available to him. "I was basically lost," he said. "I didn't know what direction to start walking to get the help I needed."
DS3 "supports the soldier 100 percent," Cortinas said. "This program is a really positive thing to help our past, present and future soldiers," as well as their families.
Rebecca Sides, wife of now-retired Sgt. James Sides, said the program helped her through one of the most difficult times of her life. Her husband, a flight medic with the 571st Medical Company, had just come out of a coma after a helicopter crash that left him submerged in water. He still suffered the aftereffects of brain bruises, a broken humerus, a collapsed lung, a stroke and short-term memory problems.
The family lost its military housing and Sides' military income, leaving Rebecca to carry the brunt of the burden to move the family to Wynne, Ark., find a new job and help the couple's two young boys adapt to their changing circumstances. "This program offers us a place to go when we need help," Rebecca said.
Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Briscoe, a Special Forces soldier still being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for combat injuries he received in Iraq, said he was particularly impressed that the DS3 staff sought him out not the other way around. "The top leadership came to me, the soldier, to ask if I had any needs or concerns," said Briscoe, who lost the bottom half of his right arm and received extensive injuries to his left arm in Iraq in October.
Briscoe said he plans to tap into the services offered by DS3 as he goes through the medical board process. He hopes to be able to continue his military service in some capacity for the next three years to serve out a full 20 years, but acknowledges that "it's really good to know that DS3 will be there if I have to transfer out."
Principi said the DS3 program will help repay, at least in part, the tremendous debt the American people owe to its disabled soldiers.
"These soldiers have provided enormous service to the nation," agreed Brownlee. "They may have lost a leg or arm or eye, but they haven't lost their spirit or courage.
"And whether they leave or stay in the Army, they and their families know that they remain a part of the Army."