President Obama greets a group of wounded soldiers in the Cross Hall of the White House in 2011. (Pete Souza / White House via Getty Images)
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Severely wounded warriors typically see their household earnings drop precipitously after returning home with a catastrophic injury, but government benefits more than compensate for that loss and often result in a net increase in the families' total income, according to a new study.
In the case of the most severely wounded troops, household income was more than 50 percent higher than that of similar families of troops who suffered no injury, according to a study of more than 700,000 troops who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2006.
The exhaustive study was part of the 11th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation and came after the Pentagon was ordered by the White House in 2010 to study the financial impact of war casualties on military families' financial well-being.
Troops who are injured earn significantly less in the years following a serious or very serious casualty, primarily because they are far more likely to separate and lose their military paycheck, the study said.
Spouses of wounded warriors are also likely to see reduced earnings in the years that follow a war-related injury. That's likely because the spouse may have to work fewer hours to care for the injured service member, the study found.
Yet for the most seriously wounded troops, those reduced earnings are offset by the array of benefits available to injured service members, including disability payments from the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, concurrent retirement pay and combat-related special compensation.
In some cases, household income spikes shortly after an injury due to payments from Traumatic Service Members Group Life Insurance policies, known as TSGLI, which provide lump-sum payments for troops with life-altering injuries.
The study said the overall increase in income "may raise questions about the appropriateness of current levels of disability compensation" but there are many reasons why wounded warriors' benefits should provide more than 100 percent replacement for lost income.
For example, uninjured troops would probably see their income continue to rise with age and work experience, but wounded warriors' benefits are likely to increase only with inflation or cost-of-living increases. Households supporting wounded warriors may face out-of-pocket costs for care that typical households do not. And it's common to offer robust benefits to people working in high-risk professions, such as the military, policing and firefighting, the study said.
The latest study was conducted after a 2007 Presidential Commission on wounded warriors urged fundamental changes in the disability system for troops. But this year's QRMC concluded that no major changes were needed. Its formal recommendations were limited to urging a more "seamless transition" between active-duty care provided by the Defense Department and the VA programs for veterans. Another recommendation suggested closely tracking new caregiver compensation programs and conducting further studies of spousal incomes.
Significant income increases are limited to the seriously wounded troops. On the other hand, for troops who respond to post-deployment health screenings that their health has generally "worsened" during a deployment, and for those who cite low-level problems that required referrals for follow-on treatment, overall earnings can slip slightly, and subsequent benefits do not make up for the loss.
Some advocates question the study's conclusions that most wounded warriors' financial needs are met.
"The compensation rates are fairly high — if you are totally disabled at 100 percent, it's a fair amount of money. But still it is not enough to live on," said David Autry, spokesman for Disabled American Veterans. "Life is really expensive these days, especially if you've got those kinds of demands on your energy and your life."