Sgt. Briggs's War

Bob Briggs got a head full of shrapnel in Iraq. Then he came home to more wars: to regain the use of his half-paralyzed body, and to get the U.S. government to pay for his medical care.

After that it's off to dinner. Briggs has gained weight over the course of his rehab, so he's trying to watch it. This is one more thing that's not easy anymore. "That's one thing about the brain injury," Michelle explains. "He doesn't know when to stop eating. They don't know when to shut it off. I have to tell him, 'That's it. No more.'"

ON THE SUBJECT of the Iraq war, there is one main thing Bob Briggs wants to say: "They're doing a good job over there, rebuilding the schools and hospitals. Trying to clean it up. And I think the soldiers are doing a real good job training the Iraqi soldiers, even with the lack of communication between us." His feelings about the U.S. Army are less warm. Round about early September, he was ready to kick somebody's ass.

"If I see any bill from this surgery, I'm going to be screaming at every congressman," he pledged. Briggs was scheduled to leave the Minneapolis VA and travel to Walter Reed in D.C., where he was to undergo a cranioplasty that would replace the missing part of his skull with a prosthetic piece. Doctors also planned to put a permanent prosthesis in his right eye.

By this time, Michelle had stopped attending so many of her husband's therapy sessions—so that he could regain his independence, she said. But also because she was suddenly quite busy: As the scheduled trip neared, her days were brimming with phone calls, paperwork, more phone calls, research into the particulars of Bob's benefits, and constant communication with Bob's VA case manager. Three months after his injury, the Army medically retired Briggs, shedding him as their responsibility. Which means that all his medical benefits fall under the auspices of the VA.

Trouble is, the Army and the VA are two formidable, and distinct, bureaucracies. The Army/Defense Department is responsible for pay and benefits accruing to active-duty soldiers as a result of injuries. In theory, a soldier who is wounded remains on the active-duty roster and has his medical needs taken care of by the DoD. But because Briggs was retired out so quickly, everyone is unsure who will pay for what when it comes to future medical expenses, which are bound to be huge. The VA is not part of the DoD, and grants some benefits on a case-by-case basis. Disability benefits and burial, for example, are entitlements; health care measures extended by the VA are discretionary.

Since there's no guaranteed payor for the services he needs, Briggs is worried that his family will be stuck with a crushing debt after all is said and done. He's heard other horror stories about wounded soldiers who lost benefits or were required to pay back money to the military as a result of being shifted from the Army to the VA.

The moral point is clear, at least to Michelle Briggs: "The Army needs to follow through and pay for his care until he's done. That's the issue. This is a war-related injury. He should've never been retired until he was done with his treatment. They pushed him through.

"The people at the VA have been great," she added. "They're doing everything they can to work with us. But this is not their responsibility. This is the Army's."

After weeks of haggling, the VA finally agreed to shoulder the cost of his travel and surgery. In the end, though, Briggs's travel and surgery had to be delayed until the second half of October. (As of this writing, he is still recuperating at Walter Reed and will probably return to the Minneapolis VA in early December.)

Colonel David Lindberg, the Iowa Army National Guard's deputy chief of staff for personnel, claims that the reason Briggs was medically retired from the Army so rapidly was that the VA system offered a better range of services for a soldier with his injuries. "The Army did move relatively quickly to retire him," Lindberg offers. "Typically you'd remain in the Army longer before you're medically retired, which is when a soldier could not fully recover to return to active duty. But they did it because it was best for him and his family. They certainly weren't trying to wash their hands of him."

Lindberg does admit that this has caused problems with Briggs's follow-up care. "Because the health care was started at Walter Reed, the Army was telling him he'd have to go back for the surgery," he says. "And because normally you'd remain in the Army for longer, his case was unusual." Lindberg says this serious glitch in the system only has happened this one time in the two years he's had the position in the Iowa National Guard. He goes on to add this mea culpa: "We worked with the VA to make sure his and his spouse's travel and the surgery were taken care of, and made sure they got what they were entitled to. I hope the Army learned a couple of things from this, that we need to recognize this [kind of thing] early so that those responsibilities can be met."

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