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WASHINGTON — After Army 1st Lt. John Fernandez lost both legs to friendly fire in Iraq, he had plenty of phone calls and pamphlets about services available to help him start his civilian life. What he didn’t have was someone to explain it all.

“It’s all hard to grasp, as you try to cope with your new lifestyle and injuries you sustained,” he told members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “You’re looking towards the future, wondering, now that your military career is over, what does the future hold for me?”

Defense and Labor department officials acknowledged that the current system for getting benefits and vocational information to wounded servicemembers is overwhelming.

“It’s like drinking from a firehose; there’s no way they can absorb all of it immediately,” said John Molino, deputy undersecretary of defense for family policy issues. “Very often they’re still on serious medication when they hear it. They can’t be expected to understand everything.”

Committee members have held several hearings over the last two months regarding complaints from troops and their families who believe the maze of information is too confusing to be helpful.

On Tuesday, Fernandez and another soldier injured in Iraq two years ago both testified that while plenty of job training and college enrollment programs existed, they had trouble finding exactly what they needed.

Pvt. 1st Class Tristan Wyatt, who lost his right leg while fighting in Fallujah, got a job doing computer work with the Department of Veterans Affairs after receiving his medical discharge.

But he said that took a lot of persistence and patience, and told senators that lost paperwork and long waits for responses are common in the military’s benefits system. “It just seems like there’s a lack of organization at times,” he said.

Molino said officials created the Joint Support Operations Center to help coordinate the individual forces’ systems, and have been pleased with the results so far. But he said more must be done to make the transition from military to civilian life easier for wounded troops. The center has established a 24-hour number, (888) 774-1361, for troops to get more information on programs.


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