Sgt. Juan Jimenez had one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq, ushering top Administration officials through the war-torn streets of Baghdad. He returned home with two Purple Hearts and shrapnel lodged in his right arm. Today he is gravely ill.
What Jimenez didn’t realize is that before he could receive benefits for his wounds, he’d have to prove that those wounds came from war. Three and a half years later, the sergeant is still making his case. The Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t convinced. And it won’t give him his benefits until it is.
The VA requires all veterans to prove their wounds are "service-connected" before it writes them a check. Jimenez thought that hurdle was merely a formality. The Army sergeant had been struck by two roadside bombs. The first sliced into his arms; six months later, a second bomb sprayed scrap metal into his face, knocking him unconscious and leaving him brain damaged. He began having seizures and suffering from memory loss. The blast left a persistent ringing in his right ear. The stress sparked nightmares, flashbacks and acid-reflux disease.
"I’m a different person now," Jimenez says glumly. "I come home; I lock myself in my room. I don’t really talk to anyone. I used to be fun." Now, he says, he can’t even have a bowl of cereal. It gives him heartburn for days. "That second bomb, it killed me–it just left my body." Sick, suicidal, the sergeant sought help from the VA.
The VA’s diagnosis: too much caffeine. "They said I was drinking too much Red Bull. That’s what was causing my problems."
Jimenez got mad. At that point, he did something few veterans even consider: he sued the VA. The sergeant is a member of Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), one of the most prominent veterans’ groups in the country. In July 2007, executive director Paul Sullivan filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Jimenez and the thousands of veterans in his organization who were wounded in Iraq and, he says, were rebuffed by the VA when they sought disability and medical benefits.
"The VA needs more than a few minor changes at the margins. It needs a massive overhaul," says Sullivan. His organization’s lawsuit asked Judge Samuel Conti to do exactly that: radically restructure the VA and the way it processes veterans’ claims. The VA moved immediately to get the case dismissed, asserting that Sullivan’s organization didn’t represent the nation’s wounded vets and had no standing to demand an overhaul of a $94 billion government organization.
Judge Conti disagreed. The 86-year-old World War II veteran scheduled the trial for the end of April, and he demanded VA’s top officials appear and take the stand. Over seven days VCS’s lawyers would press them to explain internal e-mails and studies, statistics and videos, all suggesting that high-ranking officials purposely deceived Congress and the public, twisted data to cloak the VA’s poor care of the ill and injured, and fired a prominent doctor who decided to expose the problems.