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Consumer Reports

Soldier seeks federal insurance law for fellow combat amputees | (KRT) After losing a limb, mobility or eyesight to bullets or bombs in Iraq, some of the most gravely wounded U.S. soldiers face financial devastation.

Now, a young Army sergeant moved by the plight of fellow amputees is seeking creation of a federal insurance law to provide timely help to the war's future wounded.

After Ryan Kelly's lower right leg was blown off in an ambush near Baghdad 18 months ago, he joined the steady stream of maimed soldiers going through Walter Reed Army Medical Center's eminent Ward 57 in Washington.

Kelly said he and his wounded comrades received excellent medical care, state-of-the-art prosthetic devices and extensive rehabilitation. He ran a 5-mile race in Central Park last summer on his artificial leg.

Soldiers, protected by high-tech body armor and treated rapidly by field trauma medics, are surviving powerful explosions like never before, but they're losing arms and legs, or hands and feet.

Some 200 soldiers have lost at least one limb in the Iraq war, veterans' advocates said.

Many of them left the hospital in dire financial straits.

In many cases, family members had to quit jobs to be with the disabled soldier, and overextended their credit cards to pay for airfare to Walter Reed and other expenses. Houses were lost, cars repossessed.

"I saw many buddies trying to deal with amputation, and they're on the border of social subsidies," said Kelly, 24, a bantam, boyish-looking man with the drawl of his native Texas, who lives in Arizona.

Kelly, an advocate with the Wounded Warrior Project who travels throughout the nation, came up with the idea of catastrophic disability insurance for soldiers who return from combat blind, immobile, severely burned or missing a limb.

Service members would be automatically enrolled in the insurance program unless they opt out, and would pay $12 a month. Some cost would be picked up by the government, "but it wouldn't be a burden," said Kelly.

A lump sum of $10,000 to $50,000 would be paid under his plan.

Kelly worked with Jeremy Chwat, director of public policy at United Spinal Association, a Queens, N.Y.-based nonprofit group affiliated with Wounded Warrior, to draft legislation.

"We're very close to ironing out the finished product, and we'll roll it out to the VA officials, and present it to a member of Congress, in the next two weeks," Chwat said. "We will be looking for a (legislative) sponsor with a strong connection to veterans."

Kelly said that ideally, the wounded soldier's arrival at the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, would trigger the payment.

Newly disabled veterans "really need to get the money within the first week to two weeks," Kelly said. "It would go a long way to relieve the stress."

Now a soldier with a grave injury stays on the military payroll but gets less money because he no longer receives combat pay. Those forced to retire because of injury do not get their veterans benefits for a month to six weeks.

Nearly 1,000 servicemen and women critically injured in this war would not benefit.

Kelly and Chwat pitched the concept to departing Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi last autumn. "He was interested and wanted to hear more," Kelly said.

He said he looks forward to making the case to Jim Nicholson, President Bush's nominee to succeed Principi.

Kelly credits his uncle, New York lawyer Larry Kelly, with inspiring the idea. Larry Kelly represented victims seeking aid from the Sept. 11, 2001, compensation fund.

Ryan Kelly retired as a staff sergeant in August after 6-½ years in the Army Reserves.

He had enrolled at the University of Utah on a full ROTC scholarship only 10 days before his unit was mobilized. He chose to ship out to Iraq instead of continuing his studies.

Kelly and his wife, Lindsey, were both in Iraq as civil affairs officers with the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion.

He arrived in Iraq in early April 2003.

"We were doing nation-building, hearts-and-minds stuff," he said.

On July 14, 2003, Kelly was with several comrades headed to Baghdad for a health and education conference. Their Humvee passed near explosive devices.

"They detonated three artillery shells," Kelly said. "A piece of shrapnel the size of a TV remote control cut my leg off at the knee."

A scrap of Kelly's uniform was melted onto the bomb fragment, and he keeps the piece with his Purple Heart.

"I feel obligated to help the soldiers in Iraq now to get what they need," Kelly said. "Most Americans probably feel the same way."

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© 2005, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services