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Originally published Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 12:19 AM

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Marine hurt by vaccine denied injury benefits

It wasn't a bullet or roadside bomb that felled Lance Cpl. Josef Lopez three years ago after nine days in Iraq.

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — It wasn't a bullet or roadside bomb that felled Lance Cpl. Josef Lopez three years ago after nine days in Iraq.

It was an injection to his arm before his unit left the United States.

Lopez, then 20, suffered a rare adverse reaction to the smallpox vaccine. While the vaccine isn't mandatory, the military strongly encourages troops to take it.

The reaction left Lopez, a Marine from Springfield, Mo., in a coma, unable for a time to breathe on his own and paralyzed for weeks.

Now he can walk, but with a limp. He has to wear a urine bag, has short-term memory loss and must swallow 15 pills daily to control leg spasms and other ailments.

Special benefit

Even though his medical problems wouldn't have occurred if he hadn't been deployed, Lopez doesn't qualify for a special government benefit of up to $100,000 for troops who suffer traumatic injuries.

The problem? His injuries were caused by the vaccine.

"I could have easily died or not been able to walk because of that," Lopez said. "It destroyed my world. It was pretty traumatic to me."

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees the benefit program, said they're following what the agency has determined to be Congress' intent.

"It's for traumatic injury, not disease; not illness; not preventive medicine," said Stephen Wurtz, the VA's deputy assistant director for insurance. "It has nothing to do with not believing these people deserve some compensation for their losses."

VA officials were unable to say how many claims have been rejected because of vaccine-related injuries. Wurtz and others familiar with the program said it probably wasn't a large amount.

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As of July 1, the traumatic-injury program has granted nearly 6,700 claims, a 63 percent approval rate, and paid $394 million in compensation, Wurtz said.

A representative for the Military Vaccine Agency, which oversees the vaccination of troops for smallpox, anthrax and other diseases, couldn't be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and a member of the Armed Services Committee, drafted a bill named after Lopez to widen the program to include vaccine-related injuries.

She learned of his plight when he and his mother stopped in her office last year looking for help. Lopez had come to Washington to compete in the wheelchair portion of the Marine Corps Marathon.

"The program was created with a broad mandate to provide financial assistance to folks with serious injuries and given to VA to determine the outlines," said Stephen Hedger, McCaskill's legislative director and an Army veteran of Iraq. The VA "took a narrower approach and defined in greater detail what injuries and illnesses qualified for payment. Our view is it was way too narrow."

Lopez's health insurance through the military covers his medical expenses. The VA has paid for his medical costs since his June discharge.

Congress sets up program

What he didn't get were benefits from a program called TSGLI, or Traumatic Servicemember Group Life Insurance. Congress created it in 2005 to provide short-term financial help to severely injured service members until their disability benefits could kick in. The compensation is retroactive to injuries suffered since Oct. 1, 2001.

It's intended to cover expenses such as the costs of having a relative temporarily relocate while an injured service member receives treatment at a military hospital. Another might be the costs of retrofitting a service member's home to accommodate a wheelchair or other medical equipment.

The injuries don't have be the result of combat. Service members could be eligible because of a car accident on the way to the grocery. The fee is an additional $1 each month on top of their regular military life-insurance premium.

Lopez seemed to fit the profile. His family also met another: financial hardship.

His mother, Barbara Lopez, took a leave from her job as a high-school secretary to move to Maryland while he spent six weeks at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. She also had to give up her second job, a part-time position as a cashier.

They had to build a ramp and widen a door to accommodate his wheelchair at her home in Springfield, where he spent his recovery.

Barbara Lopez said she heard about TSGLI from families of other injured troops at Bethesda. Yet unlike many of them, whose wounds were obvious, her son's application was turned down. She still can't fathom it.

Permanent scarring

"In his spinal column, he has quite a bit of permanent scarring," Barbara Lopez said. "He takes medication to help his legs. He can walk unassisted, but never far, and he can't stand for very long. I kind of feel Joe was out there fighting the same fight they were. He should be just as eligible."

The military began the smallpox-vaccination program in 2003 because of post-9/11 fears that terrorists might attack with germ warfare. Plans for the invasion of Iraq were also under way. The military was concerned Saddam Hussein might use biological weapons against U.S. troops.

Smallpox is contagious and can be fatal. However, on rare occasions, the vaccine can be as dangerous as the disease. Side effects can range from a simple rash to swelling around the brain and heart, and even death.

Like the inoculation for anthrax, troops are supposed to be informed of the side effects and told that taking the vaccine was optional. Many have said it was made abundantly clear refusing wasn't a good idea.

"No one said 'No,' " Lopez said. "I had no qualms. I had no reason not to" get the vaccine.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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