A military review could bring millions of dollars in benefits to thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The military has agreed to review the records of recent veterans discharged with PTSD to decide whether they were improperly denied benefits.
The agreement stems from a judge's order in a class action lawsuit originally filed by seven combat veterans. They alleged the military illegally denied benefits to those discharged, at least in part, because of the disorder during a six-year period that ended Oct. 14, 2008.
Legal notices are currently being mailed to about 4,300 veterans informing them they can "opt-in" to the lawsuit until July 24 to be part of the expedited review. Attorneys for the veterans estimate that millions of dollars could be paid to veterans under the agreement, with some veterans receiving hundreds or more dollars in increased monthly benefits.
Former Army Sgt. Juan Perez, 36, of Owosso, Mich., said the development in the suit, filed in 2008 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, was a relief. Perez, a father of five who did two tours in Iraq, said he has migraine headaches and an eye injury related to a head injury sustained in Baghdad. He also has nightmares and takes medication for his mood related to PTSD.
Since he left the military, he said, he and his wife were laid off from their jobs and declared bankruptcy, in part because of medical bills from the birth of his two youngest kids.
"I'm glad that they are finally moving forward and reevaluating the soldiers that need to be reevaluated and doing the right thing," Perez said.
Another of the veterans who filed the suit, former Marine Cpl. Tyler Einarson, 28, of Moorhead, Minn., who was shot twice while serving in Afghanistan in 2005 and has PTSD, said Monday the suit could make a significant financial difference for veterans like him.
"It's a fight every day. Something like that changes a person, and not necessarily in a good way," Einarson said of his war experience.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a terrifying event in which the person was physically harmed or felt threatened. Symptoms can range from flashbacks to problem drinking.
At issue is the disability rating given by the military to veterans discharged with PTSD. Each of the seven plaintiffs was given a rating of 10 percent or less.
The law requires the military to assign a disability rating of at least 50 percent to those discharged for PTSD, said Bart Stichman, co-executive director the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit organization that represents the veterans. Since October 2008, the military has given the 50 percent rating to those discharged with PTSD, Stichman said.
The higher rating ensures that the veteran receives lifelong monthly disability payments, free health care for the veteran and the veteran's spouse, as well as health care for the veteran's minor children.
If a veteran qualifies for a higher disability rating, he or she may receive back pay as well as reimbursement for health care expenses.
To help the affected veterans, the National Veterans Legal Services Program and Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP law firm have coordinated about 100 volunteer lawyers to offer free counseling.
Stichman said it's possible some veterans will qualify as part of the class action suit who did not serve in combat, but instead were discharged for PTSD related to some other type of traumatic event, such as rape.
On the Net:
Information on lawsuit: http://www.ptsdlawsuit.com/
National Veterans Legal Services Program: http://www.nvlsp.org/
PTSD Information Center: http://www.ptsd.va.gov
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