Nearly half a million Americans serve in the National Guard, with more than 40,000 engaged in missions around the world. But CBS News has uncovered cases where service members say they were injured in the line of duty face an uphill battle to get health benefits and pay.
According to the most recent data obtained by CBS News, about 30% of injury claims that are recommended by local commanders are determined not to qualify by the Air National Guard, raising questions among service members about whether correct policies and procedures are followed.
One of those veterans is Master Sergeant Jim Buckley, whose family has spent three generations serving in the military.
"It's infuriating," Buckley said. "You're shouting into the wind, and nobody's listening."
After tours in Iraq and Africa, Buckley says that he injured his shoulder during a physical fitness test in 2019. While he said he initially dismissed it as a "minor inconvenience," the shoulder wound up needing surgery a year later. Another physical turned up a sleep disorder, migraines and hypertension — all conditions that Buckley said he didn't have before his military service.
Unlike the active component of the military, the National Guard requires paperwork to determine that the injury happened or was aggravated while serving. While his shoulder injury was eventually approved, Buckley said he struggled to get his other medical issues recognized for benefits, or what's called a line-of-duty determination.
"If you don't have the line of duty, it's like the injury didn't happen," Buckley said. "You're on your own. You're taking care of the injury. You're footing the bill."
After Buckley was taken off military orders, he says his family lost his military health insurance and his monthly income of $4,000. It's been "a great hardship," he said.
Jeremy Sorenson also served in the Air National Guard as an F-16 and A-10 pilot. He now advocates for injured service members through the nonprofit USJAG.org. Sorenson told CBS News their team is already working with 15 similar Guard cases.
"Jim Buckley is representative of what we believe to be thousands of service members that are being mistreated," Sorenson said.
Buckley's paperwork indicates his Air Guard command in Mississippi backed up his injury claims, but the final call was made by the Air National Guard. He told CBS News that he has not seen any evidence to support the determination made by the Air National Guard.
In October, Buckley was in a dark place. Just minutes before midnight, he wrote the Air Force Secretary and National Guard senior leadership. He said in the email that he was "drowning" and "reaching out for your help," begging that the officials "not turn a deaf ear and a blind eye."
"It's coming from a place of pain in my heart," Buckley said. "The last thing I ever wanted to do was get injured. I would have served until I was 60."
A National Guard spokesperson told CBS News that Buckley was provided with evidence to back up the injury denials, adding that "a review of the medical records and application of accepted medical principles led the Air Reserve Board to conclude these conditions existed prior to service."
Buckley said the struggle to get his injuries covered has made him rethink his family's service. Now, he no longer wants his 16-year-old son, Matthew, to join the National Guard.
"Years ago, I would've had a much different answer. The furthest thing I can think of is him joining the military," Buckley said. "I'm so conflicted in saying that, because my grandfather, my father, myself (all served), and I'm very proud of the service, and love the military. But to think that he could be put through the wringer — all it takes is one injury."
CBS News has learned both the Defense Department and Air Force internal watchdogs have open cases into Buckley's allegations, which include abuse of authority and failing to provide evidence to back up the final determinations.
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