Champaign veteran fighting disability battle with VA
CHAMPAIGN – According to Army doctors, Garrett Anderson has "shrapnel wounds, all over body."
But the Champaign man found out last week from the Department of Veterans Affairs that the wounds "aren't related to your military service."
"I must have got them on North Prospect," Anderson jokes.
It was no joke on Oct. 15, 2005, when an improvised explosive device tore through his body in Iraq, injuring his face and destroying his lower right arm.
The VA sent him a letter dated March 5 saying that the 30-year-old is 90 percent disabled, following a complicated formula that gives him 70 percent automatically for his arm.
Anderson would like the full 100 percent, not just because that means more money – about $1,000 more, according to their figures – but because 100 percent guarantees educational expenses for himself, his wife, Sam, and his children.
Sam is just finishing law school in Michigan and has enormous college loans.
"We have the (debt) number somewhere, but we don't like to look at it," she said.
Her husband plans to go back to college himself, perhaps to study criminal justice. He is also considering a career in politics, as a crusader for veterans rights.
As a National Guard soldier earning hazard pay in Iraq, Anderson earned $3,000 a month. His disability pay will be about $1,800 a month.
Carl Henderson, a spokesman for the Veterans Benefits Administration Chicago regional office, said he can't discuss the specifics of Anderson's case for health privacy reasons.
He acknowledged that explaining the percentage scale is not easy.
"It's a complex process based on ratings schedule and special reviews. The disability percentage or compensation is based on service-connected injuries – they do not have to be combat-related," Henderson said. "Veterans disability compensation could be combined on several injuries or wounds that are service connected."
He was puzzled by the description of shrapnel wounds as not service-related.
"I have no idea why shrapnel wounds would not be service connected if he was in the military. Maybe he incurred the injury when he wasn't in the military?"
The good news, Henderson said, is "the appeals process is always open. Unlike other types of appeals, they can always be reopened."
The Andersons do intend to appeal the ruling, and they've been told that process could take two years. There's a level of uncertainty about whether to proceed with college immediately.
Anderson said he's a little angry about the 90 percent rating.
"I feel that (the VA's) just trying to save money," he said.
He's also not pleased that he needs to have another VA physician examine him when he's recently undergone the long process.
And he's concerned about documenting his military medical history, which starts in a fog in a field hospital and continued at the trouble-plagued Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
"He's not even sure where the amputation took place," Sam said.
Garrett and Sam still have a sense of humor to fall back on.
"We're going to put you to work," they tell their infant daughter, Skyler.