(DAVID GOLDSTEIN) It wasn’t a bullet or roadside bomb that felled Lance Cpl. Josef Lopez three years ago, after just nine days in Iraq.
It was an injection into his arm before his Marine Corps unit left the United States.
It left Lopez in a coma, paralyzed and unable for a time to breathe on his own. He can walk now, but with a limp. He has to wear a urine bag, has short-term memory loss and must swallow 15 pills daily to control leg spasms and other ailments.
Yet the Springfield, Mo., man does not qualify for a special GI benefit of up to $100,000 for troops who suffer traumatic injuries.
Seemed “pretty traumatic to me,” Lopez said.
“I could have easily died or not been able to walk because of that. It destroyed my world.”
Lopez suffered a rare reaction to the smallpox vaccine. The vaccine is not mandatory, but the military strongly encourages troops to take it.
Even though his medical problems would not have occurred had he not been deployed, the benefit was denied.
Never mind that qualifying injuries don’t have be the result of combat, that a service member could be eligible because of a car accident on the way to the grocery store.
The hang-up? His injuries were caused by a vaccine.
Just following what is considered to be the intent of Congress, say officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The benefit is “for traumatic injury, not disease, not illness, not preventive medicine,” said Stephen Wurtz, deputy assistant director for insurance. “It has nothing to do with not believing these people deserve some compensation for their losses.”
The VA was unable to say how many claims have been rejected because of vaccine-related injuries. Wurtz and others familiar with the program said it wasn’t many.
The Military Vaccine Agency, which oversees the troop vaccinations, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and a member of the Armed Services Committee, has drafted a bill named after Lopez to widen the program to include vaccine-related injuries.
She became aware of his case when he and his mother stopped by her Senate office last year. Lopez had come to Washington to compete in the wheelchair portion of the Marine Corps Marathon.
“The (benefit) program was created with a broad mandate to provide financial assistance to folks with serious injuries and given to VA to determine the outlines,” said Stephen Hedger, McCaskill’s legislative director and an Army veteran of Iraq. “It took a narrower approach and defined in greater detail what injuries and illnesses qualified for payment.
“Our view is it was way too narrow.”
The program is called Traumatic Servicemember Group Life Insurance; TSGLI for short. Congress created it in 2005 — retroactive to Oct. 1, 2001 — to provide short-term financial help to severely injured service members until their disability benefits kick in.
The money comes from a $1 fee each month on top of the regular military life insurance premium.
The compensation is intended to cover expenses such as the costs of having a family member temporarily relocate near a military hospital where a loved one is recovering. Another cost could be retrofitting a service member’s home to accommodate a wheelchair or other medical equipment.
As of July 1, the program had granted nearly 6,700 claims, a 63 percent approval rate, and paid $394 million in compensation, Wurtz said.
Lopez seemed to fit the profile. His injuries affected his normal daily activities, one of the hurdles to clear for coverage.
While Lopez’s health insurance through the military has covered all of his medical expenses and the VA has paid for his medical costs since he was discharged in June, his family has faced financial hardship.
His mother, Barbara Lopez, took a leave from her job as a high school secretary to move to Maryland to be with him during his six weeks at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. But she had to give up a part-time job as a cashier.
They also had to build a ramp and widen a door to accommodate his wheelchair at her home in Springfield, where he spent his recovery.
Barbara Lopez said she heard about TSGLI from families of other injured troops at Bethesda. Unlike theirs, her son’s application was turned down. She still can’t fathom it.
“In his spinal column, he has quite a bit of permanent scarring,” Barbara Lopez said. “He takes medication to help his legs. He can walk unassisted, but never far, and he can’t stand for very long. I kind of feel Joe was out there fighting the same fight they were. He should be just as eligible.”
The military began the smallpox vaccination program in 2003 because of post-Sept. 11, 2001, fears that terrorists might attack the U.S. with germ warfare. Plans for the invasion of Iraq were also under way. The military was concerned that Saddam Hussein might use biological weapons against American troops.
On rare occasions, as in Lopez’s case, the vaccine can be as dangerous as the disease. Side effects can range from a simple rash to swelling around the brain and heart, and even death.
Like the inoculation for anthrax, another pre-combat injection, troops are supposed to be informed of the side effects and told that taking the vaccine is optional. But many have said that it was made abundantly clear that refusing was not a good idea.
“No one said ‘no,’ ” Lopez said. “I had no qualms. I had no reason not to.”
He enlisted in the Marines while still in high school. He said everyone ought to serve the country in some way. He was also looking for adventure and “knew I’d have lots of good stories.”
Lopez became a radio operator with a Marine Reserve unit out of Kansas City. He was sent to the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 to help after Hurricane Katrina. A year later, in September 2006, he was in Iraq.
Even in the short time he was there, he experienced some close calls. But one night, less than two weeks into his tour, he started feeling as if he had the flu. Then he couldn’t sleep. He had trouble with his balance and couldn’t walk. He had to crawl on his hands and knees to the latrine.
Within days, he was taken to hospitals in Iraq and Germany. Doctors placed him in a drug-induced coma. He didn’t wake up until Bethesda.
That was three years ago. Now Lopez has his own place and is a sophomore at Missouri State University in Springfield. He is thinking about graduate school, about teaching.
“Before, I just kind of coasted,” Lopez said. “Now I know I take some things a lot more seriously. I’m more driven to succeed.”
He has had to go back the hospital a few times.
He is angry about what happened.
“It’s like I’m being penalized because I got the vaccine,” Lopez said.