Saturday, July 17, 2010

Insurer Denies Payment to Wounded Vet

Knight Ridder

MINNEAPOLIS -- If the Army needs proof that Ryan Hallberg suffered a loss when he was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, it need look no farther than 4 inches below his right knee. There's nothing there.

Despite an amputation from his injuries, Hallberg has twice been denied a $50,000 insurance benefit because he has been told by the federal insurance office administering the program that "there is not enough medical information to support your loss."

Similar cases are emerging across the country about the same program, established five years ago to address the growing number of troops coming hope with traumatic injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat whose office has become involved in Hallberg's case, called it an example of "government bureaucracy gone amok." A recent Government Accountability Office audit is critical of how claims from the program have been denied.

While one branch of the government has provided Hallberg, who lives in Andover, Minn., with a prosthetic leg and rehabilitation at 90 percent disability, another has denied his claims for a loss.

As he heads to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., for three weeks of fitting for a new prosthetic, his expenses have soared as he has taken unpaid time off from his job as a Coon Rapids community services officer.

"You're holding $50,000 from me that I rightfully earned by donating a limb to this nation. So why wouldn't I fight for it?" said Hallberg, 26, who left the military as a staff sergeant.

Hallberg's plight is rooted in terrible twists of fate. He was riding as a gunner in Iraq, attached to an Army Reserve unit, after taking the place of another soldier who sought a less dangerous assignment. On the day of his injury, March 28, 2006, Hallberg was riding in the second vehicle in the convoy because another soldier was on leave. Hallberg had switched his leave to allow the soldier to go home to see the birth of his child. The convoy was taking a general to a meeting from Baghdad to Fallujah and had encountered a roadside bomb en route. Hallberg's unit wanted to spend the night in Fallujah and return the next day after the road had been cleared. Instead, the general ordered the unit to proceed.

Hallberg has haunting video of the attack. From a Humvee gun truck several vehicles away, the video shows a plume of black smoke appearing in the middle of the road. Gunfire from the .50-calibers begins immediately as the trailing truck passes through the plume, spent cartridges spitting out on the hood. Hallberg's Humvee can be seen slowing to a stop. A lone soldier runs back to the disabled Humvee. Both of Hallberg's legs had been shattered in the blast, which injured all four passengers. One of the soldiers died en route to medical care.

"I started hearing gunfire, so I grabbed the turret walls with my hands and I went to get back up to the turret, and realized that, OK, the command I just gave to my legs didn't go through," he said.

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