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Wounded vet says red tape, not PTSD, is at heart of soldier suicides

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This is a repost I copied from Mens Health at http://www.menshealth.com/best-life/gap-kills?fullpage=true#.UXCcNyE5Nu8.twitter. It’s a great article and need to be read by as many as possible. We are truly the answer and we need to continue to fight the VA and demand they take care of us in a timely manner. Organizations such as WWP, VFW, DAV are all great but their resources are also being stretched to the maximum because of the lack of care being provided by the VA.

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The Gap that Kills

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“It’s this gap right here where people die.”

It has come to this. A disabled Marine Corps veteran, horribly wounded in Afghanistan, holding a fundraiser for himself so he and his bride can buy a damn home. And feeling ashamed for it, at that. It is not Sgt. Al Brenner who should be ashamed. It is you and me.

I met the 24-year-old Al Brenner for breakfast the other day. Same South Jersey diner, nearly the same booth, where we sat and talked two years ago. Back then Al was a corporal, just released from Bethesda, where Navy Docs had sewn his mangled right leg back together and treated the burns that covered most of his torso after he and his bomb-sniffing dog, the three-year-old German Shepherd named Grief, had been blown to holy hell outside of Kandahar.

The Docs had also rebuilt Al’s shattered right arm using flesh, muscles, tissue, arteries, and veins grafted from his left arm. His missing left pinkie? Couldn’t do much about that. Same for the several dozen microscopic and cauterized pebbles and grains of dirt and sand the IED blast had embedded in his eyeballs. But Al was luckier than Grief, who died from his wounds and was buried the next day in an unmarked Afghan grave.

Coming out of Bethesda, the Corps assigned Al to a Wounded Warrior battalion at California’s Camp Pendleton. But he was determined to return to his K-9 training unit. Knew he’d probably never fight again. But felt that his Downrange experience, if he could impart it to the newbies heading over, might save American lives.

“It was initially something of a shock to them.” Al laughs. Loud. Hearty. “Think they expected me to be all blowed up. All dead and stuff. Yet here I was walking, talking. The same guy they worked with overseas. But then I started to get, ‘Well, you don’t have to be here. You’ve earned your ticket out.’ But I just felt that it would be pointless for me to have gone through something like I did and then just sit at home and not be able to share the knowledge with the guys going back over.”

So what Al did was, “Make sure I taught them everything I didn’t know before I left.”

He went, he says, “beyond” the training book. Setting up courses on how to react to live fire. How to spot secondary and even tertiary booby-traps. How to recognize battlefield loiterers who might turn out to be IED triggermen.

“I even took MREs and other foods, macaroni and cheese from the mess hall, clumped and molded it together with twigs and dirt to simulate decomposing bodies that could distract their dogs.”

When Al’s K-9 trainee team deployed to Afghanistan in late 2011, he finally reported to his Wounded Warrior battalion. To begin not only his physical rehab, but his transition to civilian life. Still, his wounds were not healing as fast as he was wanted, as fast as he was trying to will them to heal. One year later, last November, he was medically retired with a 100 percent disability. This is when his world began to fall apart.

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Al and his wife Megan returned from California to Jersey. Broke. He had no idea what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He hoped to become a service dog trainer, but almost all of the outfits who run such businesses are non-profits who rely on volunteers. Al needed a job. He and Megan wanted to start a family. They wanted to buy a home. “But,” Al says, “I fell into that gap in the system between active-duty pay and VA benefits.”

Al, waiting the standard two months to receive his first disability check, did not have the money to rent an apartment, much less buy a home. He waited another three months for his next check to show up. Megan, who married Al in 2009 and had followed him from Marine base to Marine base since, had too little work experience on her resume to get callbacks from the jobs to which she applied. And Al was still too physically debilitated to work at the few jobs available.

“I can’t lift a box to work at Loewe’s. You have to be able to lift 50 pounds to stock shelves at CVS. I can’t do that. I’d be a greeter at Walmart. But I can’t do that because I can’t stand for eight hours. This is my world. Living in the basement of my parents’ home.

“If you don’t have parents you’re screwed, you’re homeless,” Al says. “You’re unemployed, in some cases physically or mentally unemployable. The world thinks retired, disabled servicemen and women have all the job sources in the world. All the housing sources in the world. Sure, if you want to live where they have homes with housing allowances. Upstate New York? Kentucky? I grew up in New Jersey. It’s where my friends and family are. Why should I have to live in the Midwest because that’s where designated veteran’s housing happens to be?”

So Al became, in his words, “proactive.” He and Megan began house hunting. With no money. Realtors, the ones who took them seriously, scoffed. It did not stop them. By this November when his disability payments will become steady, he calculated that even without he or Megan working, “I’d be able to afford a modest house in an okay area around here.”

And then they found their dream house. Which led Al to rely on the kindness of strangers to fund the closing costs on their bid by starting Donate Strength To Patriots. You can also find his organization on Facebook and Twitter. (By the way, read the initials of Al’s organization backward; yes, he also suffers from PTSD.) Al has already raised $2600 in three days, and has set a modest goal of $10,000 for himself. If his outfit takes off, he says he plans to set up an on-line charity for similar needy vets that will eschew the usual spaghetti dinners and 5K runs and get the money straight to worthy donees, cutting out the middleman.

 

“My wife and I need a home, a life, and aside from robbing a bank or committing suicide, this was the best thing I could think of,” he says. “At first I was ashamed at having to do this. I felt horrible. Like begging on a street corner. But I’m teetering right now. I’m on the tip of this teeter-totter and I’m either gonna go one way or the other. And I’m not alone.”

And here’s where my conversation with Al got interesting. We started to talk about the rash of active-duty suicides—more than double, annually, than actual American KIAs in Afghanistan since US troops entered that benighted country in 2001. And the 53 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets diagnosed with mental health disorders. And the almost 63,000 men and women who served in OIF and OEF who are now homeless. The Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration are basically gob-smacked by these horrific numbers. In fact, the day before I met with Al I sat with a former US Navy Admiral who admitted that for all the studies the Pentagon has commissioned, no one has any idea how to deal with these problems.

“Everybody thinks it’s from the war, because we’ve seen combat,” Al said. “That’s a lot of BS.” He was excited, and speaking so loud we both noticed heads turning in the booths near us. “It’s the transition period out of uniform that is causing most of this.”

At this Al grabbed my pen, flipped his paper table mat, and drew a rectangular block. He wrote “service” at one end; “civilian” at the other. “That year-long block after getting out and before disability money begins arriving with regularity, there’s your problem right there. Believe me, I lived it. There is so much red tape. So much bureaucracy.”

Jabbing the pen point into the box, he said, “It’s right here where disabled vets become cave dwellers in their parents’ homes—if they’re lucky enough to have parents with homes. It’s right here where they start thinking about suicide. It’s right here where they start thinking about just giving in to their PTSD and TBI symptoms. Staying in their Mom’s basement playing video games, abusing booze and drugs. It’s this gap right here where people die.

“If I committed suicide tomorrow the news would report that the horrors of Afghanistan drove a hometown hero to take his own life. But deployment has nothing to do with it. It’s the bureaucratic bullshit we have to go through afterward. But it’s easier to blame the war.”

Al Brenner has returned to college part time. Aiming for a psychology degree. Wants to help other vets like him. He knows he cannot change the world for veterans, much less change the system. But he can try, and he can begin by changing it for him and Megan. Before we parted ways I asked Al what he would do if Donate Strength To Patriots brought in more than his requested $10,000.

“I was going to keep any overage,” he said. “But then I thought that that wasn’t right. I said $10,000. It’s all I need. So every penny over $10,000, I’m just gonna find some people with better business heads than mine to run the organization and start donating back to vets who need it.”

“I heard that the actor Bradley Cooper has taken an interest in this kind of thing since he filmed Silver Lining Playbook at Walter Reed Medical Center. He’d probably know somebody who could run this for me if it takes off.”

And here Al Brenner flashed a sheepish grin.

“Only trouble is, I don’t have Bradley Cooper’s cell number.”

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I hope you don’t mind that this article was a repost but I thought it was important enough to do so.

 

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About the Author:

Christopher "Patches" Norton is a Retired 20 year United States Air Force Master Sergeant. Chris also served 5.5 years as the Lead Loadmaster on the Super Guppy Transport at NASA Johnson Space Center. Chris was Disability Retired from NASA in 2012 following an injury on a Super Guppy mission. As a Veteran, Chris turned to the Veterans Administration medical system for assistance and this is where this story really begins. What Chris seen at the Houston, TX VA Hospital left him with an urgent feeling and need to give back. So Chris has a new mission....to tell his story.....his Post Military Adventure! Struggles blending in with Society, dealings both good and bad with the VA and what he's learned from other Veterans. *********************************************************************** DO NOT READ BELOW UNLESS YOU ARE INTERESTED IN A BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY DISCLAIMER.....MOST will not make any money at all with this. Some will....the difference is what you have inside of you and what you're willing to do and share. Just as the Bible says, it's better to teach a man to fish than give him one. Chris searched and found the Empower Network and saw how he could bring help to 100's, 1000's and even tens of 1,000's in a powerful way. Although all of us have different challenges, Chris believes the Empower Network WILL work for anyone... and CLICKING RIGHT HERE is how it starts!!!

Discussion

  1. Santa Fe Mike  April 21, 2013

    Hey Chris, thanks for posting this. An “Eye Opener” for sure.

    (reply)

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