WASHINGTON — Retired Spc. Steve Bohn, who was severely injured in an ambush in Afghanistan three years ago, is sinking deeper into debt every day while he waits for Veterans Affairs officials to process his disability claim.
“I get $699 a month from my retirement pay, and my rent is $700 a month,” the 24-year-old veteran said. “I can’t pay my electric bill. I can’t pay any of my other bills.
“I used to work as a roofer and a chef, but I can’t do either of those anymore, because of the pain. I’m struggling.”
The money problems are just the latest ordeal for Bohn, who told lawmakers Wednesday that he already has weathered multiple surgeries, apathetic care specialists and frustrating incompetence from military physicians. Twice he was sent to the wrong base while awaiting surgeries. For the last seven months, his pleas to speed up the claims process have been ignored.
Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said Bohn’s story is indicative of the infuriating problems still plaguing injured servicemembers as they move from military wounded warrior units to veterans health care. More than four years after promises of improvements following the wounded troop care scandals at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, they noted, progress remains frustratingly slow.
Officials from the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments insisted that improvements have been made, and that anecdotes the senators have heard during their series of hearings on veterans care — long waits for medical appointments, inexperienced prosthetics specialists at VA facilities, confusing and confrontational benefits processing — are being addressed.
“Stories like Spc. Bohn’s are unacceptable, but we’re making progress,” VA patient care chief Deborah Amdur told the panel. “But we also know that clearly we still have a long way to go.”
Agency officials pointed to dozens of new programs in recent years governing patient care and monitoring as evidence that the system is vastly different than just a few years ago. George Taylor Jr., deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health, said that the warrior transition unit where Bohn faced several problems two years ago has been completely revamped, with more opportunities and attention given to troops stationed there.
But Jim Lorraine, executive director of the Central Savannah Wounded Warrior Care Project, said he still sees massive communications problems between the military and VA, and says no one from either agency is making sure wounded troops are getting the information or services they need.
“In the military, when you move to a new base, you receive a sponsor at your new destination,” he said. “When a soldier transitions to veteran status, there isn’t a sponsorship program.”
Lorraine also said that too often, the burden of figuring out the systems falls to the wounded troops themselves.
Bohn said his family couldn’t afford to fly down to Walter Reed from Massachusetts for his surgeries, and no military officials informed him of outside groups that might have helped. When he came out of the operations, it was hours before anyone called his parents to let them know he survived, and only after he requested they do so.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the committee, blasted department officials for those kinds of failings, noting that “it is past time to get it right.” VA leaders at the hearing said they would personally oversee Bohn’s case, and inquire why Social Security disability pay or other VA benefits programs haven’t helped fill his financial needs while his claim is processed.
In fact, Bohn said he received a call just days before Wednesday’s hearing, informing him that his claim has been sped up. That prompted several senators to joke that any veteran frustrated with the system should be put on the committee’s witness list, to get them extra attention.
Murray glared at the agency representatives in response.
“It shouldn’t have to come to this,” she said.