One of the biggest differences between America’s military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and previous wars is that medical treatment in the field has improved dramatically. As a result, a significantly higher percentage of soldiers who suffer traumatic injuries are surviving. In 2004, it became increasingly apparent that the federal government’s veterans’ benefits programs did not adequately reflect this new reality, and Congress, the Administration, veterans’ organizations, and service member associations were seeking a way to more quickly help our injured troops. Acting on a request from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Thomas Lastowka and his colleagues rose to this challenge. Working with legislators and all concerned stakeholders, they led the effort to implement the new benefit that is helping servicemembers and veterans with traumatic injuries rebuild their lives.
When a family member in the military suffers a serious injury, his or her family wants to be with that servicemember during the difficult and lengthy rehabilitation period. Many families do not have the financial resources to do so and are forced to leave jobs and deplete savings in order to be together. In 2004, momentum began to build behind the idea of providing additional financial assistance for military personnel who suffered traumatic injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. In May 2005, Congress passed a law to create such a benefit, and Thomas Lastowka and his team pushed to develop the necessary guidelines and regulations so the program could go live in December 2005.
Lastowka and his 12-member team would set up the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance Traumatic Injury Protection program (TSGLI). This program provides payments between $25,000 and $100,000 to amputees, burn victims and other members of the uniformed services who suffer traumatic injuries, enabling servicemembers to focus on their rehabilitation, not their finances. This benefit was made payable retroactively to any servicemember who was seriously injured from October 7, 2001 through November 30, 2005 in Operations Enduring Freedom or Iraqi Freedom. The first TSGLI payment was made on December 16, 2005, barely two weeks after the program officially opened its doors.
Getting this program off the ground so quickly was no easy task. The program was modeled after commercial accidental dismemberment coverage, but multiple changes had to be made to account for the unique needs of the military personnel. Lastowka’s team had to develop a number of innovative solutions, and Lastowka then had to build consensus between VA senior management, the Defense Department, the Office of Management and Budget, and the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in support of these proposals.
In addition to making the program operational, the team also coordinated outreach efforts to identify eligible personnel and veterans and notify them of their eligibility. To date, these outreach efforts appear to be succeeding.
Within the program’s first four months, it had paid more than 1,600 claims totaling $110 million in aid. While those numbers may seem impressive, it only takes one personal story to understand the impact of this program.
Sergeant John Keith lost his leg from an explosion in Iraq. He spent three weeks in a coma and then three months recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, accumulating thousands of dollars in debt. His wife, and eventually his two small children, joined him, living in a one-bedroom apartment for another eight months at Walter Reed’s Malogne House. His financial problems continued to mount as Sgt Keith and his wife were paying rent and utilities for their home in Texas while paying living expenses in Washington, D.C.—a city with a much higher cost of living. The impact on Sgt Keith, who was learning to walk again, was immense. “I knew about [the debts], but it added to my stress because there was nothing I could do.”
In December 2005, John found that there was something he could do. He was one of the first to receive a payment from the TSGLI program—$100,000. To John, this benefit is “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” With a look of relief, he tells the story of calling all his creditors to pay off his debts and then receiving one notice after another that said, “Paid in Full.” Sgt Keith and his family now have a home in Virginia where he has remained in the service, but with a new career working for Army Acquisitions.
Our country has a moral obligation to support the troops like Sgt Keith who sacrifice so much for our country. Thanks to Thomas Lastowka and his team, America is meeting many of those obligations in a way that should make the American people proud.