COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. » Nearly 200 sick and wounded soldiers in a gym at Fort Carson last month listened silently as Lt. Col. Daniel Gade offered a surprising warning: The disability checks designed to help troops like them after they leave the service might actually be harmful.
As he paced back and forth in front of the soldiers, some of them leaning on crutches, Gade said too many veterans become financially dependent on those monthly checks, choose not to find jobs and lose the sense of identity and self-worth that can come from work.
"People who stay home because they are getting paid enough to get by on disability are worse off," he said. "They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to live alone. You’ve seen these guys. And the system is driving you to become one of them, if you are not careful."
It is a message many veterans find offensive and misguided. But Gade is not your typical messenger. He is a combat veteran who lost a leg while serving as a tank company commander in Iraq in 2005.
Today, he is a professor of public policy at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but he spends much of his spare time publishing essays and traveling the country pushing the idea that the Department of Veterans Affairs should move away from paying veterans for their wounds and instead create incentives for them to find work or create businesses.
"It’s a difficult issue to broach. People immediately think you are trying to shortchange veterans," he said. "But I’m in a position to do it because I have skin in the game, literally."
Much like debate over Social Security, discussion of disability compensation is the third rail of veterans politics. It is a program with broad public support that has defied efforts at change even as it has consumed a growing portion of the $151 billion VA budget.
Since 2001, the number of veterans getting monthly checks for service-related disabilities, ranging from bad knees to catastrophic injuries, increased by 55 percent, and the overall cost of compensation nearly tripled, to $59 billion.
Despite the rising cost, revamping the program remains unpopular with both parties in Congress as well as with the country’s major veterans organizations, many of which employ large numbers of people to help veterans apply for benefits. Officials with those groups say the idea that disability compensation discourages work is unfair to veterans and potentially dangerous to a system that has helped many cope with the ravages of war.
"No one wants to be disabled; they want to work," said Garry Augustine, the Washington director for Disabled American Veterans. Augustine was wounded by a land mine in Vietnam and lost the use of his left hand and foot. "I’m a perfect example," he said. "I came back severely injured, couldn’t walk. I needed compensation because I couldn’t work. I went to school on the VA, got job training through the VA, and worked my way off disability. The VA gave me my life back."
Some veterans’ advocates say Gade is siding with fiscal conservatives who want to reduce federal spending, even if it comes at a cost to wounded veterans.
"It’s unclear what their end state is," said Paul Rieckhoff, the chief executive and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Rieckhoff said his organization would support testing alternatives to disability compensation. But, he added, "The larger problem right now is not that too many people are getting paid. The larger problem is not enough people getting care and support."
Gade’s ideas have won support from some conservatives. A pilot program, which would provide financial incentives to veterans who work, is being started by the Philanthropy Roundtable, a donor organization that has pushed other reforms focused on individual choice, such as charter schools.
And two former secretaries of veterans affairs under President George W. Bush — Anthony J. Principi and Jim Nicholson — said in interviews that they pushed for overhauling the disability system but could not overcome resistance from veterans groups and Congress.
Gade, 39, says he wants to avoid a partisan fight over his ideas, which he says are first about helping veterans and second about saving money. "I think we can show we have a no-kidding better way to help veterans that is cheaper and more effective," he said.
He is not completely alone. Some new veterans groups say labeling so many veterans "disabled" makes it harder for them to rejoin society.
"When vets come home from war, they are going through a tremendous change in identity," said Eric Greitens, a former member of the Navy SEALs and founder of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that encourages veterans to volunteer in their communities. "Then the VA, and others, encourage them to view themselves as disabled. We meet a number of veterans who see themselves as charity cases and are not sure anymore what they have to contribute."
Gade sometimes uses his leg as an example of what needs updating in the system. A century ago, he says, he might have spent his life hobbling on crutches, dependent on government aid to provide for his three children. Today, he has a lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber prosthesis guided by microprocessors that has allowed him to return to active duty. But the disability system still treats him as if he needs a crutch, he says.
He first noticed what he considers the misguided incentives of disability compensation while recuperating from his injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005. Many of the amputees in his ward, he said, had been there for years.
He left the hospital after five months and spent another six months in daily physical therapy. A year later, when a scandal over poor treatment of soldiers at the hospital erupted in 2007, he saw some of the patients he knew testifying before Congress.
"I couldn’t believe they were still there," he said. "These guys weren’t bad guys — a lot were straight-up heroes — but there was no driving force to move them forward."
His main goal is to reach young veterans who initially get modest compensation for less severe injuries, then seek a greater payout — a phenomenon critics call "the benefits escalator."
He points in particular to a federal program known as Individual Unemployability, for which veterans become eligible when the government gives them a rating of 60 percent disabled or more. The program pays them as if they are 100 percent disabled, as long as they can show their disabilities keep them from maintaining "substantially gainful employment."
The bump in benefits is substantial: Veterans getting $1,200 per month can receive up to $3,100 per month, as long as they do not work.
"From an economic standpoint, you would be crazy to get a job. It’s a trap," Gade said.
At Fort Carson, he attempted to recruit people to test his alternative to that system. With funding from private donors, he hopes next year to give 100 participants $55,000 to use toward anything that will help them secure employment, such as equipment for a business, training or professional certification. The participants must agree not to increase their initial disability ratings or use the Individual Unemployability program during the trial.
Veterans in the group would get a 25 percent bonus on everything they earn up to $40,000, an incentive designed push them into the workforce. The program will also track 100 veterans who get only the bonus payments, and a control group of 100 who get nothing.
"We are not taking away your benefits, but we don’t want you to ride the escalator," Gade told his audience at Fort Carson.
It was difficult to know what the wounded soldiers thought, but some seemed receptive.
"The current system is just ‘Give me the money, who cares about anything else,’" a soldier from a military police unit told Gade. "Your idea says go out and work, be productive, feel good about yourself. There is where we do well. If we don’t have a mission, we don’t do well."