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CNN: SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT
Broken Government: Waging War on the VA
Aired November 17, 2007 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
TONY HARRIS, ANCHOR: And good evening, everyone. I'm Tony Harris. Here's what's happening right now: A U.N. panel comes to some dire conclusions about climate change. The panel's report says it is so severe that only urgent global action could head off the crisis. More than 2,000 scientists who are part of the research, singles out the U.S. and China as the world's biggest polluters and warns that if greenhouse gas emissions aren't cut, water shortages could impact millions of people in Africa, Asian coastal cities could see more flooding, species of animals could become extinct, in Europe and the U.S. could see hotter heat waves and more droughts.
Help is arriving for the tens of thousands left homeless in Bangladesh by one of the country's worst cyclones ever. More than 1,700 people have died and the death toll still rising. Power is still out across much of the country. The U.S. is expected to approve plans to send up three navy ships and up to 3,500 marines to assist in relief efforts.
Illinois investigators continue to search for Stacy Peterson, the fourth wife of former police officer, Drew Peterson. Meanwhile, a pathologist says he doubts the jury's conclusion that the third Mrs. Peterson drowned. The New York City's former chief medical examiner reviewed the remains of Kathleen Savio which were exhumed this week. His initial findings suggest Savio's death was no accident. Stacy's disappearance last month prompted the investigation into Savio's death. Her husband claims Stacy ran off with another man and is still alive.
Those are the headlines this hour and now, they have escaped death, lost limbs and returned home to a bureaucratic nightmare. CNN Doctor Sanjay Gupta investigates the shocking reality facing our war heroes. Keeping you informed, CNN - the most trusted name in news.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You are about to meet three Iraq war heroes who paid an extreme price to serve their country. Marine Sergeant, Ty Ziegel, Army Major Tommy Duckworth and Army Sergeant, Garrett Anderson -- true patriots who have served with dignity and honor, but you'll be shocked to learn that these wounded warriors are being failed by their own government. By a broken bureaucracy that let them down when they returned from war. You'll be outraged, as I was, to learn that they've had to wage war on the VA, the Department of Veterans Affairs.
GUPTA (voice over): A backyard cookout at the Ziegel family home in Illinois. A final family meal before saying good-bye. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your brother's packing and now I'm taking pictures of you packing.
GUPTA: Twenty-two year-old, Zack Ziegel, deploys tonight. For Zack's parents, sending a son off to war is all too familiar. Zack's big brother, Ty, served two tours in Iraq as a marine sergeant. His family remembers sending off their first son three years ago.
JEFF ZIEGEL, TY'S FATHER: Well, it was tough.
BECKY ZIEGEL, TY'S MOTHER: We're at the reserve center and they had done formation. The buses had pulled up and they said, go hug your families. And he stepped up onto the curb, and I looked in his eyes and I knew. That little voice that talks to you sometimes said, he'll never be the same.
GUPTA: A couple days before Christmas 2004, Ty Ziegel got hit by a suicide bomber. And this is Ty Ziegel today.
TY ZIEGEL, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: It's just all -- it's all just one big scar pretty much. The guy sitting right here next to me went into the fire, pulled me out of the fire, put me out on the ground, and I guess whether fuel was so hot I kept reigniting on fire so he put me out and put me out one or two or three times or whatever.
GUPTA: From dressing in camou's as kids to getting tattoos as marines, Zack and Ty are more than just brothers. They're best friends. Zack didn't sign up to fight without first asking for Ty's blessing.
ZACK ZIEGEL: I just said, are you going to go? He said, I think so.
TY ZIEGEL: I said, cool.
I told him to go. I told him he needed to do it.
GUPTA: Would you go back?
TY ZIEGEL: Yes.
GUPTA: You'd go back to Iraq?
TY ZIEGEL: Yes. If I could still hold my gun and pull a trigger, I would go.
GUPTA: Brothers ready to step in the line of fire for their country. That's the way Ziegel's are built. And Zack leaves behind his fiance, proposing just before shipping out, just like his brother did three years ago.
RENEE ZIEGEL, TY'S WIFE: (INAUDIBLE) keep coming, they'd say like, I love you or happy birthday and then the last one was (INAUDIBLE)-- then he came over.
TY ZIEGEL: I got down on a knee and gave her a box that had a piece of paper that said I owed her an engagement ring.
GUPTA: But Ty and Renee's wedding would have to wait. Ty was in a fight for his life. The day after getting hit, he was rushed to Brook Army Medical Center in Texas.
TY ZIEGEL: They wanted me to die in America is basically why I got back so fast. They didn't -
GUPTA (on camera): So, they have not sound very optimistic?
TY ZIEGEL: No, not at all.
GUPTA (voice over): With enough clothes for a week, Ty's mom and Renee left home to be by his side.
RENEE ZIEGEL: We walked in there and the nurses would tell us, it's a good day. Make sure tonight is a good night.
GUPTA: They stayed for nearly two years as doctors pieced Ty's shattered body back together again. This model shows the large portion of his skull and part of his brain that had to be removed. On top of that -
TY ZIEGEL: Few breaks in my jaw, got holes from shrapnel, five, six, seven holes throughout my face here, burns, neck, face, and head. This left arm ended up having to amputate first middle finger and my thumb, and I later got my big toe put on there for my thumb.
GUPTA: After rescheduling their wedding three times, Ty and Renee were finally married on October 7th 2006, the day captured here in "People" magazine. Ty and Renee, now newlyweds, spent their first months living off his military retirement, about $1,200 a month. And the money Renee made from a part-time bar tending job. All along they expected the VA to follow up with a higher monthly disability check.
TY ZIEGEL: I'm not expecting to live in the lap of luxury. I'm not asking that from the VA. But I am asking them to make it comfortable for me to raise a family, and not have to struggle.
GUPTA: Last April, a check from the U.S. Treasury appeared in the mail. No explanation attached. The Ziegels called the VA for answers. Several phone calls later, a letter arrived, detailing each injury with a rating from zero to a hundred percent.
JEFF ZIEGEL, TY'S FATHER: When I started reading the first line it was, like, oh, this isn't good. And every line the disabilities decreased and percentage of disability.
GUPTA: From facial disfigurement rated at 80 percent to head trauma at a shocking 10 percent and his left lobe brain injury, right eye blindness and jaw fracture listed at zero percent. That's right. Zero percent. With these VA ratings, Ty's monthly compensation was just under $2,700 a month, nowhere near the $4,000 Ty expected.
(on camera): Are you outraged? TY ZIEGEL: Yes. Yes. I've got a pretty long fuse. I don't get too mad about too many things. But once we've been getting into this, I'm ready to be down doing if I need to.
GUPTA: Our own investigation found that in 2006 Ty's home state of Illinois ranked 44th out of 50 states with an average disability compensation of $8,357 a year. New Mexico had the highest at $12,891. The VA internal reports obtained by CNN reveal the potential for persistent regional differences and rating decisions that often call for subjective judgments. Ty's father, Jeff started making phone calls to the office of then a -- VA secretary, Jim Nicholson in Washington.
JEFF ZIEGEL: I do Google on Ty's name, I said, you might see a picture of him, and you'll see the guy I'm talking about my son.
GUPTA: And the secretary's office called back, promising significant changes. Still the Ziegels had no idea what that meant. For now, Ty's life is on hold. He took us to the place where he one day hopes to build a home.
TY ZIEGEL: You can't even build a house with no money, you know, obviously. We need -- I need to make sure all that's done and over with and ready and we're comfortable before I ever put a shovel in the dirt out here.
GUPTA: Next -- Ty takes his outrage to the nation's Capitol.
TY ZIEGEL: Every person that runs all of these buildings should be ashamed.
GUPTA: One son volunteers for war. As the other wages war on the VA.
JEFF ZIEGEL: He mentioned the other night, he said -- Dad, we're going to get this right. He said, God forbid it's that -
GUPTA (on camera): What if at some point this happens to him?
TY ZIEGEL: That's why I want to make the VA system better. Because, if he has to go through anything I went through, that's really going to upset me. That will make my fuse real short and hot.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We should have our answers tomorrow on what they're going to do.
TY ZIEGEL: OK.
GUPTA: Ty Ziegel was originally told it could take a year or more before he would start receiving his disability checks. But 48 hours after telling his story to CNN, the office of then-VA secretary Jim Nicholson acted on his case.
TY ZIEGEL: When I told them I am willing to fight for, you know the rest of my life. This is my livelihood forever. I've got all the media, my congressman, and on the phone when I said that, he stopped me right away, said, oh, no, no, no. We don't need to get anyone like that involved.
GUPTA: Ty's percentages increased across the board. Head trauma for example rated at just 10 percent was changed to traumatic brain injury, rated at 100 percent. Simply put, Ty is now getting considerably more disability pay for his injuries. But Ty knows the fight is not over for so many others.
TY ZIEGEL: Hello, Paul.
PAUL: How are you doing?
GUPTA: Ty himself had help behind the scenes from veterans' activist, Paul.
TY ZIEGEL: He was just the go-to guy throughout the whole thing. Because he knows the system.
GUPTA: Paul, a Vietnam vet, invited Ty to Washington, hoping his story would bring attention to other vets from as far back as World War II who Paul claims are getting cheated by the system. Ty and Paul first took their story to the "Washington Post." They left, dejected.
PAUL: We're worth a million dollars when we're over there dying. The day we come back here, we're not worth 10 cents.
GUPTA: Next visit, the office of presidential candidates, Barack Obama.
TY ZIEGEL: We went to Senator Obama's office and talked to one of his staff representatives, and he seemed like he cared and hopefully he'll do something about it.
GUPTA: And Hillary Clinton.
TY ZIEGEL: Then we went into Senator Clinton's office.
GUPTA: Meeting with staffers behind closed doors.
TY ZIEGEL: They kind of seemed like they wanted us out of there faster than we got in there.
GUPTA: But they did score a coup with a write-up in the "Washington Times."
TY ZIEGEL: Yes, this is cool. Very cool.
GUPTA: Still, Paul isn't satisfied. He decides to make an unannounced visit to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
PAUL: You have no security problem with me whatsoever.
GUPTA: After a brush with security, a high-level staff member comes down to hear their case. TY ZIEGEL: Ty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ty, I'm honored.
GUPTA: He immediately recognizes Ty.
TY ZIEGEL: He's the one Mr. Nicholson called to take care of my problem.
GUPTA: Paul pleads the case for other veterans, fighting for compensation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obviously, I'm unaware of this. I'm hearing it for the first time. We'll be happy to look into it.
GUPTA: But Paul won't let up.
PAUL: First he wasn't even told that he was entitled to rights.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very good. We'll be happy to look into it. Thank you for everything you've done for the veterans.
PAUL: I wish y'all would do the same.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's been a pleasure.
TY ZIEGEL: Everyone here should be ashamed. I'm ashamed, and every person that runs all these buildings here should be ashamed because veterans should not have to fight for their rights and fight to have a decent life and support themselves.
GUPTA: This past July, then-VA secretary, Jim Nicholson and a commission appointed to review the care of returning veterans met with the president.
GEORGE W. BUSH, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: We owe a wounded soldier the very best care and the very best benefits possible.
GUPTA: The commission called for an overhaul of the 62-year-old disability rating system. Nicholson promised changes.
SECRETARY JIM NICHOLSON, DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: They're going to be reviewed because of many of those manuals that existed have been around since the end of World War II. And it's high time that they be upgraded.
GUPTA: Secretary Nicholson also agreed to talk with us about Ty's case at a later date.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks for your time today, and look forward to August when Dr. Gupta can sit down with you.
NICHOLSON: Same here.
GUPTA: But the day after this interview, Nicholson resigned. Three months later, I interviewed acting secretary, Gordon Mansfield, a Vietnam veteran.
(on camera): With Ty, his father ultimately called the secretary's office here. Should it come to that? Will they have to call the secretary's office?
ACTING SEC. GORDON MANSFIELD, DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: Of course not. No, of course not.
GUPTA: Good. But he had no one else he could call that was responding to him.
MANSFIELD: Well, let's be real you know, about the 224,000 that have applied versus the anecdotal evidence. I think most of them are moving through the process and being taken care of.
GUPTA: Mansfield insists that cases like Ty's are rare, that most veterans get a fair compensation.
MANSFIELD: I can tell you any veteran with the same issue, if it's a medical disability, you know, if it's a loss of a leg below the knee, is going to get the same exact result anywhere if our system.
GUPTA: You're confident of that.
MANSFIELD: I'm confident of that.
GUPTA: But remember Ty's own case got inconsistent results. He was first rated for head trauma at 10 percent before the VA changed it to traumatic brain injury rated at 100 percent.
MANSFIELD: The rating schedule itself is a creature of the economy that was in place during World War II.
GUPTA: It might be a little mind boggling for people to know that our rating system we're sort of predicated on a system from 60 years ago.
MANSFIELD: That's a creature of statute and regulation and the bureaucratic process.
GUPTA: I think a lot of veterans don't want to hear that, that their rating system is predicated on a system from 60 years ago -
MANSFIELD: Again, you don't have an awful lot of veterans complaining about the package of benefits they get once they get it.
GUPTA: How would you grade the system as it stands now?
MANSFIELD: The goal is 100 percent that we do everything we can and take care of these young men and women. This workforce in the VA is a dedicated workforce and a concerned workforce and a compassionate workforce and an awful lot of them are veterans themselves. They've been through this process and they want to do the right thing and they want to make this system work and get these kids, these troops, whole again.
GUPTA(voice over): To make the troops whole again. A noble goal, but ultimately impossible. Coming up -
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GUPTA (on camera): The pedals weren't responding, why?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't have any legs.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GUPTA (on camera): Tonight, Ty Ziegel and his mom, Becky drive to a benefit dinner near Chicago.
TY ZIEGEL: Oh, man.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, Ty. How are you?
GUPTA: There he meets Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois state director of Veterans Affairs. And he's not afraid to tell Tammy the VA has let him down.
TY ZIEGEL: It's been interesting. We actually had to call Mr. Nicholson because the first ratings paper they gave me was pretty bad, pretty low percentages. Like anybody could tell, you didn't have to be a doctor to know.
TAMMY DUCKWORTH, ILLINOIS STATE DIRECTOR OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: The person who reviews the claims, the ratings specialist is just a bureaucrat, is not even who's trained in the medical field at all.
GUPTA (on camera): It's so arbitrary.
DUCKWORTH: It is arbitrary. We are, as a nation -- we need to care and live up to our end of the bargain to meet the needs of our veterans for the rest of their lives.
GUPTA: Are you optimistic about the future for our veterans?
DUCKWORTH: No. I think we have a big fight ahead of us.
GUPTA: For Tammy, the fight began November 12, 2004. Tammy is seated in the cockpit of a Blackhawk helicopter just north of Baghdad. On her last flight of the day with Dan Milberg (ph) the pilot in command.
DAN MILBERG, HELICOPTER PILOT: I'm thinking, this is great -- 15 more minutes. We'll be home, be at shower. Nobody sees us. Nobody has any clue we're even here. Then all of sudden, boom.
DUCKWORTH: Then I remember a big orange fireball in my face
GUPTA (voice over): A rocket-propelled grenade ripped through her body.
DUCKWORTH: And I don't remember my physical feelings other than absolute frustration that the pedals of the aircraft were not responding to me pushing on them.
GUPTA (on camera): The pedals weren't responding. Why?
DUCKWORTH: I didn't have any legs.
MILBERG: She slumped over up against the instrument panel. It didn't seem like Tammy. She didn't have a smile on her face. She wasn't talking. I thought she was dead and the crew member unbuckled her, and as I pulled her, she came out on top of me, and down on the ground we went again. We must have fell -- I bet you I fell on the ground 20 times trying to get people out of there.
GUPTA (voice over): An ocean away, Tammy's husband, Brian Bulsby (ph) was celebrating with his family in Maryland. It was the night before his brother's wedding. Bryan was best man. The evening interrupted when he played a voice mail. It was Tammy's dad.
BRYAN BULSBY, TAMMY'S HUSBAND: The Department of the Army Casualties called him and told him that Tammy had been shot down, lost both legs and was likely to be a triple amputee.
GUPTA: Bryan made a heart-wrenching decision, keeping the news a secret.
BULSBY: It didn't do any good to ruin my brother's wedding by letting this news out.
GUPTA: For the next 10 days, Tammy lay unconscious at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
DUCKSWORTH: And then when I woke up, I remember asking my husband to please ask the doctors to give me pain medication for my legs.
BRYAN BULSBY: And I thought that meant, OK, she doesn't know she's lost her legs. So I went out and I got -
DUCKSWORTH: My husband and I planned on me dying. I had my will written, what would do, what he would do. I had prepare myself to die if that happened. It never occurred to me that I would come back so badly injured but still be alive.
GUPTA: Her legs gone, one severed above the knee, one below. Her right arm shattered.
DUCKWORTH: This was my stomach and they put the skin graft here to put on here. I think about Dan looking over saying, she's dead. Recovering the crew, working with the other aircraft then coming back to my body, and he carried me out of there, and he didn't have to. That's what drives me, is him not leaving me behind.
GUPTA: Fifteen long months at Walter Reed. Tammy Duckworth had a lot of time to think about the future, and it looked bleak.
DUCKWORTH: I started becoming more and more worried that that transition from the incredible care I received at Walter Reed was not going to happen smoothly as I went to the VA. I sort of worrying about the fact that maybe this country won't remember in five years that there are this war wounded and this is also a price of the war.
GUPTA: And the sad truth is that the price of this war could be greater than any this country has ever fought. Advances in battlefield medicine are saving the lives of so many seriously wounded. The global war on terror has the highest ratio of injured to kill in U.S. military history. Seven are wounded in combat for every soldier killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. And the cost caring for them over their remaining lifetimes could ultimately reach more than $600 billion.
DUCKWORTH: It's a cost of the war that the American public hasn't even thought about.
GUPTA: Up next -- Tammy's husband off to war.
DUCKWORTH: And now that I have this lowest time of my life I might as well do something with this and if it means I have to annoy some politicians then so be it.
GUPTA: Within 48 hours of her hospital discharge, Tammy Duckworth announced her bid for Congress.
DUCKWORTH: You will not find a stronger voice for veterans rights and benefits than me in Congress.
GUPTA: She ran as a Democrat in the district for her legions. Illinois Republican, Henry Hyde held the office for 32 years.
But on Election Day, Tammy fell short by a tiny margin, less than 3 percent of the vote.
DUCKWORTH: It's OK. You put up a tough fight, folks.
GUPTA: Three days after her loss, the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich asked Tammy to be the state director of Veterans Affairs. On Tammy's to-do list, fixing that disparity in the disability rating system.
DUCKWORTH: If you lost the use of your arm like I did, you know, I may in where Chicago where Illinois is at the bottom of the list be a 20 percent disability rating for my arm, but if I moved to Texas, I could guarantee you that I would be seen more disable the and have higher compensation.
GUPTA: Tammy waged her war on the VA on Capitol Hills.
DUCKWORTH: The VA system is simply not ready and they don't have time to catch up.
GUPTA: No time to catch up. A startling wake-up call, made even more urgent when Tammy returned to Walter Reed Medical Center.
DUCKWORTH: I owe my life to this place. It's a little bit of a homecoming.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello!
DUCKWORTH: There's so many kids right now with brain injuries, with post-traumatic stress disorder, who have maybe have maybe six months in the army before they were injured. They don't understand the bureaucracy, they don't understand the system. They don't have the experience. If they have a brain injury, then it's their 20-year- old bride with an eight-month-old baby trying to negotiate the system. They can't fight for themselves. We have to do this, fight for them.
GUPTA (on camera): People are going to forget, aren't they?
DUCKWORTH: It's what happens. It's happened after every single war, which is why right now I want to fight as hard as I can to make sure that we set it up so that when we start forgetting about war -- and who wants the country that's at war all the time? But let's remember the veterans.
GUPTA (voice over): Near Tammy's bedside at Walter Reed, a copy of the Soldier's Creed was displayed.
DUCKWORTH: It's called the warrior's oaths. I always -
GUPTA: Words that now hang on her office wall.
DUCKWORTH: I will always place the mission first. I would never quit. I would never accept to defeat. I will never leave a fallen comrade behind.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eleven forty-four transportation loader transport battalion in order to act of duty in support of operation Iraqi freedom.
GUPTA: This time, Tammy Duckworth's husband, Bryan Bulsby (ph) is dressed in fatigues. After 19 years in the National Guard, Bryan is off to war for the first time. He spent the last few months working to get the house ready for Tammy.
BRYAN BULSBY, TAMMY'S HUSBAND: For two years I guess I kind of see myself as the one standing there even if she didn't need my help, I'd be close enough that could step in if she need something. I won't be close enough now to step in.
GUPTA: Bryan had the option to file a hardship appeal that would excuse him from war zone duty. He chose not to.
BULSBY: I can't. That's just not what we do.
TY ZIEGEL: Do you want to sit down?
DUCKWORTH: I'm fine.
GUPTA (on camera): You just had this awful thing happen to you over there. You must worry that something like this might happen to him. DUCKWORTH: I am worried. I am worried, and, you know, we're planning for him not making it home.
GUPTA: You plan for that?
DUCKWORTH: We're planning for him being killed. He's going to be doing one of the most dangerous things he can do which is running convoys.
GUPTA: You're planning for your husband to be killed.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. And then that's the worst. We'd rather be ready for that, than for something to happen and not be ready for it. Then we'll pray that he doesn't get hurt and he gets to come home.
GUPTA (voice over): Coming up -- another wounded veteran failed by the VA.
(on camera): Shrapnel wounds all over the body, not service connected. Where did you get the shrapnel wounds?
GARRETT ANDERSON: That's a good question. I wouldn't know that either.
GUPTA (voice over): Here at the Illinois state fair, veterans parade down Main Street as war heroes. Tammy rides in a golf cart with the grand martial, Iraq war vet Garrett Anderson. They met at Walter Reed two years ago. Garrett is also waging war on the VA. I paid a visit to Garrett at his home in Champagne, Illinois.
GUPTA: Good morning.
(on camera): Did your country take care of you?
GARRETT ANDERSON: At this point, they really let me down.
GUPTA (voice over): On October 15, 2005, Garrett, a national guardsman, was driving an army truck near Baghdad when an IED, an improvised explosive device, blew off his arm.
ANDERSON: I was reaching for my rifle at that point because you got the battlefield moment, because I was driving the truck at that point, my arm was hanging there lacerated.
GUPTA: His right arm gone -
ANDERSON: There was a lot of metal in there.
GUPTA: His jaw is fractured, his head and body torn by shrapnel, enough injuries to amass a hefty pile of bureaucracy.
ANDERSON: This is probably my initial rating. Every army has 10 pieces of paper for every process that you have to do. And I was right-hand dominant so I couldn't fill out the paperwork. GUPTA: So Garrett's wife, Sam, who was in law school at the time took on his case. She couldn't believe what the VA had to say.
SAM ANDERSON, GARRETT'S WIFE: It says here his shrapnel wounds all over body not service connected.
GUPTA (on camera): Shrapnel wounds all over the body not service connected. Where did you get the shrapnel wounds?
GARRETT ANDERSON: That was a great question because I wouldn't know that either.
GUPTA: It's interesting. This particular document as well, the person who filled it out obviously didn't want to leave any trace. They actually cut out their own signature.
SAM ANDERSON: That's how we received it.
GUPTA: That's how you received it. They didn't want to take credit for this.
SAM ANDERSON: Who would? Who would want to tell an Iraqi or Afghanistan soldier who was blown up by an IED that his wounds were not caused by his service over there?
GUPTA (voice over): I took Garrett's award letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington. I wanted acting Secretary Gordon Mansfield to explain how something like this could happen.
(on camera): I just want to show this to you here is the thing that caught my eye. Signature was cut right out of the letter. Its says shrapnel wounds all over the body, not service connected. Not service connected.
ACTING SEC. GORDON MANSFIELD, DEPT. OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: I can go check for you. If he was blown up, so to speak, and he's got shrapnel from it, I don't know how you would get shrapnel without having it be service connected, quite frankly. I'm sorry. I haven't seen that document.
GUPTA: What kind of system would allow a kind of mistake like that to happen?
MANSFIELD: It makes you angry.
GUPTA: It does.
MANSFIELD: Yes. It makes you more dedicated to changing the system, to do what it's supposed to do, which is to take care of these people.
GUPTA (voice over): Garrett also filed for post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
SAM ANDERSON: He got a sheet of paper that said, please explain the circumstances which you believe caused your PTSD. I wanted to write, blown up by bomb.
GUPTA (on camera): Do you have PTSD?
GARRETT ANDERSON: I think I have a mild PTSD. I have anger issues when I drive. I'm a very paranoid driver. (INAUDIBLE) around me. I'm paranoid about my house. I'm very -- I like to be home.
SAM ANDERSON: You appear to have developed a mild panic disorder that -
GUPTA: But the VA ruled Garrett had a lesser condition, a panic disorder. Diagnosing PTSD is not straightforward and it's one of the fastest growing disability claims. The even bigger problem, the VA still has not found a fair way of deciding how much it's worth.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get up!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just have a seat.
GUPTA: Over the last two years, Dr. Chirag Raval has seen more than 200 cases of troops returning home with PTSD at his clinic alone. He counsels veterans at the hospital near Chicago.
DR. CHIRAG RAVAL: When the war started, I don't know if anyone knew that it would last this long or we'd have this influx, following parents. A lot of it is just normalizing or returning to civilian life. If you spend a year and every year you could potentially die, you're on edge a lot. There no switch in the body that you turn it off when you get back
GUPTA: Dr. Ravel served in Iraq on a combat stress team. He learned of his deployment the day after his daughter was born.
RAVAL: I'm in the hospital. The next day, and I get a phone call from somebody that's telling me, oh, you're getting pulled out of this unit and placed into another for mobilization.
SAMANTHA RAVAL, DR. CHIRAG RAVAL'S WIFE: He came in and it was just kind of like this heart-sick-look you get, hard to explain but just, you know, a fake smile. And it's the happiest time of our life.
CHIRAG RAVAL: She read me like a book, she said immediately what's going on?
GUPTA: Dr. Raval would say good-bye to his wife, his newborn and his two-year-old daughter, learning firsthand the stress of going off to war.
CHIRAG RAVAL: I saw a lot of guys that couldn't sleep and that would affect their work. So, it becomes very important. I saw guy that's would have spousal troubles, marital troubles.
GUPTA: The good news is the VA has put more effort into diagnosing PTSD, but it is not an exact science.
(on camera): Is there room for error if you look through the VA system?
CHIRAG RAVAL: I mean, just from what we're talking about, it's vague. Similar methodologies, as you know. Some days are better than others.
GUPTA (voice over): More than 200,000 veterans are receiving disability payments for PTSD. Payouts from increased from $1.7 billion in 1999 to $4.3 billion in 2004.
(on camera): Can you get a sense of how much it's worth, if you will, to have PTSD?
CHIRAG RAVAL: I guess everyone has two arms. If you lose one, it's half. Of PTSD, it varies.
GUPTA (voice over): And even the acting secretary, Gordon Mansfield agrees. Diagnosing PTSD is open to interpretation.
(on camera): Can you give me an example of what you consider subjective -
MANSFIELD: PTSD ratings? If you've got medical doctors, psychiatrists. I would I bet you would agree me, you line ten of them up, and examine let's say three people who are claiming to have PTSD, you might get different answers.
GUPTA (voice over): So, Garrett Anderson can't be sure he has PTSD, but he did learn something even more alarming nearly a year and a half after returning from Iraq. A chance he could have a traumatic brain injury or TBI.
(on camera): How did you find out that you had a TBI?
ANDERSON: Because we're snoopy.
GUPTA: What do you mean?
GARRETT ANDERSON: We're nosey. You know, I took my mother-in- law and my wife to one of my appointments for the eVAluation of my scars and my shrapnel. The doctor left the office and my mother-in- law went through the file after that.
GUPTA (voice over): In that VA file, a startling discovery -- Garrett had sustained a traumatic brain injury. It's a serious condition, and Garrett wasn't getting paid or treated for it. By June 2006, the Andersons were expecting their first child and their first disability check. But the VA only awarded him $1,800 a month. Far less than the $3,000 a month Garrett earned in Iraq. Now, with evidence of a traumatic brain injury in hand, the Andersons appealed the VA's decision. But the Department of Veterans Affairs is a backlogged bureaucracy. On average, initial claims take about six months. An appeal, on average - two years. Next -- in desperation, Garrett turns to his congressman for help.
GUPTA: The day after saying good-bye to her husband, Bryan, Tammy is back to work. She struggles to pack without his help.
DUCKWORTH: This is a charger for my leg. This is the kind of stuff Bryan would do for me. I would say, honey, would you put that display case in the car for me? And he would do it.
GUPTA: And today, Tammy's leg has a glitch. It's not charging so she brings a backup.
DUCKWORTH: It's kind of like you know, your heel breaks on your shoe and luckily you have an extra pair. Kind of the same thing but with a leg. I'll be right back.
GUPTA: She makes the three-hour commute to her Springfield office, controlling the truck with her hands, not her feet. In her first year as director of Illinois's Veterans Affairs, Tammy launched several programs for returning vets with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
DUCKWORTH: And here in Illinois we're just not going to wait for the Federal government to make these services available. We're going to take care of our troops ourselves.
GARRETT ANDERSON: Yeah! Hey there little sweetie.
GUPTA: For Garrett Anderson, help is long overdue. One year after filing a disability claim, he finally received some good news from the VA. Thanks to pressure from Illinois senator, Dick Durbin.
GARRETT ANDERSON: It upsets me that the VA system operates in a way that it takes people with power and who you know and what you know to get what you want.
There's some right there.
SAM ANDERSON: All right. Let's just get this.
GUPTA: Now, Garrett receives about $2,900 a month, $1,000 more than his first award. The VA now acknowledges the traumatic brain injury but still denies his claim for PTSD.
SAM ANDERSON: It wasn't about the money. It's about the recognition that you get injured, you will be taken care of. That's what they tell these men and women, that you know, that the government, your president, your people are behind you and we're going to take care of you if you go to Iraq, if you go to Afghanistan, and if you get injured.
GUPTA: Garrett's battle inspired him to join the American Legion to help other vets file their disability claims.
GARRETT ANDERSON: Their fight didn't end in Iraq or Vietnam or Korea. It continues on when you get home to get what you want.
GUPTA: Ty Ziegel also won his war with the VA. But he's concerned for so many others. TY ZIEGEL: We're feeding a war machine, but you never think of the war machine that comes home and needs, you know, feeding back home.
GUPTA: Ty and Renee had hoped to one day build a home together.
TY ZIEGEL: We're not going to be rich, you know, but we can be comfortable.
RENEE ZIEGEL: Allows us to have a family and just live happy.
TY ZIEGEL: The all-American dream, I guess.
GUPTA: But it was not to be. Just before their one-year wedding anniversary, Ty and Renee decided to separate.
And three years after her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, Tammy Duckworth refuses to give up flying.
(on camera): Some would say, Tammy, it's too dangerous, too risky. Don't do this anymore. What would you say to them?
DUCKWORTH: I don't think it's dangerous or risky at all. I drive. I do everything that I do and flying a Blackhawk in combat wasn't exactly the safest thing to do either.
GUPTA: That's a very good point.
DUCKWORTH: Momentum, right? This brings joy back into my life. It gives me a sense of, OK; I'm regaining what I have lost. And ultimately, you know, I'm going to decide when I stop flying, not some insurgent who got lucky.
GUPTA: Before climbing into the cockpit, Tammy takes off a leg. It's easier to use just one to operate the rudders.
DUCKWORTH: It feels great to be back in and this is what I do. This is where it all started before everything else.
GUPTA: Tammy can't pilot a helicopter until she first proves herself in a plane. And for now she flies with an instructor.
DUCKWORTH: Every time I get in a plane and I fly somewhere, I think I should be behind the controls.
GUPTA: Today, she gets her wish.
DUCKWORTH: It's a good way to start off the day. Now I go work for veterans. This morning was for me. Now I go and do my job.
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