The United States military has relied heavily on National Guard and Army Reserve units in the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These soldiers are expected to fight equally on the battlefield, but a recent government audit by the Department of Veteran's Affairs concluded that when these veterans return home, their medical and other veteran's benefits are not handled the same as active duty personnel.
"Of the more than 800,000 Iraq and Afghan veterans that are eligible for Veteran's Administration care since 2002, fully half of them are members of the National Guard and Army Reserves," said Senator Patty Murray during a recent Senate hearing.
The hearing, held July 23 by the Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs, discussed an audit report which found a lack in education, outreach and implementation of benefits to veterans, especially to those in the Army Reserves and National Guard.
Among its findings were that more than 65,000 veterans did not receive initial outreach letters regarding their veteran benefits because of "incorrect ineligibility determinations." Over half of these veterans were from the National Guard and Army Reserve.
Murray added that these non-active duty veterans are also "twice as likely to have their claims denied." Additionally, the report found that 76 percent of veteran's medical claims were not processed on time and that insufficient outreach was implemented for veterans without a high school diploma.
Sgt. Ash Woolson is an Iraq War veteran who served as part of the Wisconsin National Guard. While deployed, he first noticed differences between active duty soldiers and National Guard/Reserve soldiers on the combat zone.
"We didn't have enough body armor to go around so we would play almost a lottery system to see who would get to wear armor on any certain day," said Woolson. "We may
be from different branches of the military but we are all getting shot at by the same people."
Woolson, who is a chapter president of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, was injured in 2004 as a result of a non-combat hernia and transferred to Walter Reed Medical Center.
He said that he was treated the same at Walter Reed and was even roomed with active duty soldiers during his stay. However, after returning back to civilian life, Woolsen began to notice a difference between the benefits given to him.
"There was not any follow up care," said Woolson. "My health care was extended for two years, but I was not notified until a year into the extension."
The need for follow-up care for National Guard and Army Reserve members is urgent not only for physical injuries, like Woolsen's, but also for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and other mental effects of war.
"Members of the national guard are 25 more likely to suffer a combat-related psychological wound than active duty members," said Murray.
That Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers are more prone to mental and stress related conditions illustrates the differences between these veterans and active duty personnel.
"Unlike our active duty troops who come home from battle to a military base and built-in support network, many guard and reserve members leave the battlefield and return home to family pressures and civilian jobs almost immediately," Murray said.
Active duty veterans have "Wounded Warrior Battalions" at their bases, which allow veterans to heal together.
Sgt. Erin Cooper, a veteran and member of the Iraq War Veterans Organization, sees the Fort Lewis' warrior battalion as "the best in the country." As a victim of PTSD, he now has a dedicated service dog and sees the military as doing more to take of their veterans
"They are a lot better now than they used to be," said Cooper. "Ever since the Walter Reed [scandal] they had to straighten up as now they are always on the radar."
Cooper also mentioned that during his prior military service in Somalia that PTSD "wasn't even considered a serious condition" and sees a great improvement in benefits for veterans.
The Veteran's Administration Report recommended that there be a better mechanism and policies in place to ensure no one is denied benefits unfairly as well as to ensure a "smooth transition" from a solider back to citizen at home.
Woolson personally believes that the answer to equal veteran benefits lies with not differentiating care based on a soldier's rank, branch of service, or type of soldier.
"Have the medical and veteran's administration treat all veteran's equal," said Woolson. "The best way to do this is to give the same benefits to all veterans, regardless."