By Tom Philpott: PNT columnist
Service members and veterans severely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan have inspired two new initiatives to help them and their families through difficult times.
The first is a call center, with its title and phone number hard to memorize but worth the effort: The Military Severely Injured Joint Support Operations Center with “care managers” standing by at 1 888-774-1361.
A second initiative is traumatic injury insurance for the military.
By Dec. 1, it will provide from $25,000 to $100,000 in financial help to service members or veterans injured severely.
The payments will be retroactive, to Oct. 7, 2001, to cover members severely wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Here are more details:
The center for the severely injured serves as a backstop to every other government program intended to help military members and veterans who suffer severe physical or mental wounds from war. If a severely injured veteran has hit a roadblock with finances, education, job assistance, counseling or child care, they should call the center. The goal is to prevent them from falling through the cracks of more well-publicized programs from the services, the Department of Veteran Affairs or any other federal agency.
Paul Wolfowitz, who stepped down as deputy defense secretary June 1, established the center last December based on his own field experience. He frequented Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steakhouse on Friday evenings in Washington D.C. where service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recovering at nearby military medical centers, can enjoy free dinners.
There Wolfowitz would hand out his business card, and invite the severely disabled to get in touch if they had problems. By October last year, he had gotten so many calls he became concerned.
“Enough people called that he started to think there are chinks in the armor turning to rust,” said John M. Molino, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy.
Though some services by then had their own programs to help severely wounded members — DS3 for the Army, M4L (Marine for Life) for Marines and Palace HART for the Air Force — Wolfowitz decided the Defense Department must do more. He agreed to a new call center to back up service efforts, with registered nurses and social workers on the phones.
Molino has oversight responsibility. Navy Cmdr. Dave Julian runs the center, supported by a civilian contractor.
The goal, said Julian, is to “ensure seamless care” and support for those veterans as long as needed. The commitment is for years, not just months and not just until the VA healthcare system assumes care.
Regardless of circumstance, these injured members and veterans, or their families, can call the center for any kind of help including assistance with medical appointments, arranging visas for family who wish to visit from overseas, or even coordinating transportation of patients through airports without painful security pat-downs.
The center is there if the services need help in staying in touch with their own wounded, or if they drop the ball on an individual case or if a severely injured member needs help beyond active duty, perhaps with medical evaluation boards or accessing the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Molino acknowledged that the services bristled at the center for, in effect, looking over their shoulders. But that tension has eased, he said, as the center established joint working groups and made clear “we really aren’t out to put them out of business,” Molino said.
Whether bureaucratically awkward or not, Julian said the center was needed, first because of the “scope and scale” of injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan. Advances in field medicine have saved many lives that would have been lost in earlier wars. But the severity of injuries can mean longer, more costly, more difficult adjustment periods both for veterans and families.
Also, he said, some service programs got started late, months after the war in Iraq began, and some have been strapped for resources, no doubt by the wars that, to date, have left 2,500 to 3,000 severely wounded.
When contacted by injured members or veterans, the center will coordinate support with services or the VA. But rather than pass the case on, it will address the problem and follow up at regular intervals. Over time, the center hopes to contact every severely wounded veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure they get the care and support they need.
Severely injured warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan also will get cash payments, of $25,000 to $100,000, under a rider to Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) approved as part of the Emergency Supplemental Wartime Appropriations Act signed May 11.
The law directs the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to establish the traumatic injury rider by Dec. 1, and to make payments retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Payments will vary based on severity of injuries.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: