The Ultimate Sacrifice Redefined

Military dunning disabled combat vets for gear, travel


The Washington Post caught up with some injured Iraq War vets who arrived home to find themselves pursued by bill collectors and their wages garnished. The issue? Not wages lost during overseas service, but money the U.S. Armed Forces say the disabled veterans owe.

His hand had been blown off in Iraq, his body pierced by shrapnel. He could not walk. Robert Loria was flown home for a long recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he tried to bear up against intense physical pain and reimagine his life's possibilities.

The last thing on his mind, he said, was whether the Army had correctly adjusted his pay rate -- downgrading it because he was out of the war zone -- or whether his combat gear had been accounted for properly: his Kevlar helmet, his suspenders, his rucksack.

But nine months after Loria was wounded, the Army garnished his wages and then, as he prepared to leave the service, hit him with a $6,200 debt. That was just before last Christmas, and several lawmakers scrambled to help. This spring, a collection agency started calling. He owed another $646 for military housing.

Awful, right? But that's not the worst of it. Apparently there are at least 331 veterans in Loria's, uh, shoes, and the brass know it, know it's heartless and wrong, and the holdup is the wholesale failure of a 10-year-old effort to fix the Defense Department's computer system. More outrageous, the stories told by the injured soldiers turned up by the Post suggest that the "glitch" can in fact be resolved--but only by the receipt of news media attention.

His outraged wife, Christine Loria, called the local newspaper in Middletown, N.Y., which published an article, and New York lawmakers became involved: Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D). Within a matter of days, the debts were cleared, and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner donated $25,000 to Loria.

Months later, home with his wife and stepson, Loria was stunned to receive a call from a collection agency. He owed $646 for housing: nine days of rent, damaged window blinds, a broken refrigerator tray.

"They call and they call and they call," he said. "They're nasty to me." Sometimes, he said, he feels outraged. "I don't know how much you want from me. I already gave you one arm and a part of a leg."

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