Wounded Troops Denied Benefits?

Many wounded U.S. soldiers are treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where President Bush today awarded Purple Hearts to 21 soldiers.

But CBS News Correspondent David Martin reports, wounded troops may return from war to find themselves in a different kind of battle — with the U.S. military.

A disabled soldier will never see combat again, but he might find himself fighting a new fight against the government's medical bureaucracy.

Lieutenant John Fernandez, who lost part of both legs in Iraq, knows he can no longer be a soldier, but he's not ready to leave the army.

"I personally don't think it's right to be forced out of the — the military and all of a sudden be forced to live on half of the pay that I was getting," he says.

Ryan Kelley, who lost his left leg below the knee, makes about $20,000 a year as a staff sergeant. Once he leaves the army, he will receive about $8,000 a year in benefits.

Fernandez is appealing his medical discharge. "I'm not gonna let myself be pushed around," he says.

He and his wife Kristen have become self-taught experts in the bureaucratic ins and outs.

"I can see how many soldiers can get confused," says Kristen Fernandez.

"I think that the military wants to get them off their hands," says David Gorman, who lost both legs in Vietnam.

Gorman is executive director of Disabled American Veterans, a group he says normally has easy access to wounded soldiers; but not this time.

"I don't know if it's a clouded secret about who's coming back, who's there, the nature of their disabilities, the nature of their wounds or not but there is not the kind of unfettered access that we used to have at Walter Reed," says Gorman.

A spokesman for Walter Reed Army Medical Center says the restricted access is the result of post 9/11 security concerns and new federal guidelines protecting patient privacy, which by coincidence took effect just as the war in Iraq was starting.

"We can't do our job which means in many cases, I believe personally, that there's just an outright denial of benefits coming to these young men and women because they simply don't know about it," says Gorman.

The army cannot be expected to keep badly disabled soldiers on active duty and no one is suggesting they're deliberately being kept in the dark. But even inadvertently denying them benefits is a wound they shouldn't have to suffer.