WHEN SGT. PETER DAMON, A SOLDIER FROM Brockton, Mass., returned home from Iraq a few months ago with both of his arms blown off by a Blackhawk helicopter tire that exploded he wasn't looking for a ticker-tape parade. Like many of the shattered young men and women packed into Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, what he wants most is his life back—a chance to enjoy his wife and two-year-old son and patch together some sort of meaningful future. But don't look to the U.S. government to make that happen. His fragile future rests on private generosity.
A wounded soldier's return to civilian life—and to a home adapted to his new body—means crossing a minefield of red tape, with limited resources at his disposal. Thom Wilborne, spokesperson for Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a nonprofit organization in Washington, says, “Most of these young people had never even heard of the VA [U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs] when they left for Iraq.” In coming years, they will need to know everything about the federal help available to them. But although they may crack the system, the money for special housing may be inadequate to provide what they need to live independently.
Even when vets can move past the psychological shock of severe battle wounds—and many never do—they face a barrage of obstacles, starting with time spent waiting: The average wait time for newly disabled veterans to collect their first disability check ranges from six months to two years, according to The Associated Press. The process of applying can be long and arduous. No matter how severe the injuries, a soldier is considered on active duty until appearing before a military board to obtain a discharge.
What's more, many disabled veterans eligible for disability never even tap into the benefits available to them. Some are turned down in their requests for help because their injuries do not qualify under certain narrowly defined disability benefits. Others don't bother to apply for benefits at all.
“We know claims that have been pending for 10 years,” notes Wilborne. “Records are sometimes misplaced or lost. And sometimes veterans just don't ask. It's very esoteric. They often feel that they served their country and what happened to them was fate, but they don't realize that there are some real benefits available to them, including two types of adaptive housing grants.”
Those grants aim at helping severely disabled vets build or remodel housing to accommodate their injuries. The largest—$50,000—is for soldiers who have lost the use of both legs or have been blinded in both eyes. The other, for $10,000, is for those who have lost their arms. Needless to say, these grants don't go far in today's new-housing market. In fact, they may not even cover the cost of remodeling, unless structural changes are minimal.
Knight Ridder conducted a study, released in July, that found that as many as 572,000 veterans who should be getting disability benefits have never collected, a gap that some veteran advocate groups blame on weak outreach efforts by the VA. And those efforts are unlikely to improve. According to Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine, in 2002, the Bush administration ordered the VA to scale back efforts to enroll new veterans in its health care system, presumably to cut costs.
Once they finally exit the military, a new set of hurdles rears up. As disabled vets without legs and arms and other severe injuries cross the threshold into their homes or apartments, they must relearn how to do basic tasks such as opening a door, dialing a telephone, turning on a shower, cooking a meal, and using a toilet. And they would like to do these everyday chores without the embarrassment of asking for help.
With so many other problems to worry about, is it any wonder that many disabled vets never take advantage of the adaptive housing grants designed to improve their household accessibility?
Modest Gains The process of building or remodeling a home suitable for living with severe war injuries requires time, money, and knowledge. The VA tries to help with that process, but its resources fall far short of today's construction costs.
Thanks to the effort of one Massachusetts builder/developer, however, a grass-roots effort to help severely injured veterans from Iraq is gaining momentum. This may put housing within reach for some of the most tragic cases.
The Lone Ranger Tucked away in a small loft office in Ply-mouth, Mass., John Gonsalves, a contractor by trade, has created a nonprofit organization called Homes for Our Troops, aimed at helping injured vets get into accessible housing. The organization is raising money, buying (and accepting donations of) build-able lots, and signing on builders and trades to volunteer their time to build homes for recent amputees from the Iraq conflict.
Gonsalves hopes to set up a network of charitable home builders across the country ready to break ground at a moment's notice. The first new home, built using donated time, money, and materials, will be provided to Sgt. Damon, the double amputee mentioned earlier, at no cost to him, and should be well under way in Massachusetts as this story goes to print.
Gonsalves has hundreds of letters piled in his office, each one containing a donation—some as small as a few dollars from a retired grandmother in the Midwest, others in the thousands, given anonymously. These monies will go toward doing what the government seems unable or unwilling to do: building homes for vets who have paid a horrendous price for the battle in Iraq.
“We haven't seen these kinds of injuries since Vietnam,” notes Gonsalves. “The military really wasn't prepared for the number of amputees, because nobody thought about the impact of body armor. Thanks to that armor, soldiers in Iraq who would have been killed are surviving [but losing limbs].”
But to understand why the efforts of Gonsalves and his donors are so critical, you have to peer through the smoke screen of Washington politics at the homecoming that awaits injured vets returning home.
Talk Is Cheap Despite political grandstanding from both sides about support for U.S. troops, many veterans groups, including the Veterans for Foreign Wars and even the American Legion, say they have been shortchanged by the government. One of their main gripes: The White House continues to undercut the budget for the VA. This year, it fell about $2.6 billion short of the requested amount. VA patients, overall, now collect an average of $2,800 less per year than they did a decade ago. To make matters worse, veteran prescription costs have just gone up.
“It's a disgrace, an absolute disgrace,” says Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). “We're telling these soldiers they've got to be prepared to come back here without an arm or a leg, but then we're not going to give them the help they need.”
Even some of the disabled veterans who are lucky enough to already own a home can barely scrape by on the monthly disability payments, which max out at about $3,000 per month. And those without stable housing may face an extremely dire situation. Take the story of Sgt. Vanessa Turner of Boston, reported in The Boston Globe back in August 2003. Turner returned from Iraq disabled by an unknown illness but was unable to afford housing in or near Boston with her $2,200 monthly disability check. She nearly ended up on the streets.
“Veterans are simply not a priority with any politician,” notes David Gorman, executive director of DAV. “It's a money issue. The problem is that they're a diverse group, not necessarily a voting block, so they get ignored.”
Gorman adds that the military, until recently, has made helping vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan even more difficult for aid organizations by restricting access to the injured, under the auspices of security concerns—even for groups such as DAV. Gorman says he ultimately had to write a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld demanding that his people be allowed to meet and lend aid to the worst injured soldiers.
“You look at these guys, and they look like children,” he adds. “They are children, but now they're changed for life. And for whatever reason, a lot of them have very little family support. Some of them have so many issues to deal with.”
The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans in Washington notes that veterans of all U.S. wars make up 23 percent of all homeless Americans, but constitute just 9 percent of the population.
More Of The Same In many ways, the future for quite a few of the country's disabled veterans simply reflects the present. Recent news stories portray noncommissioned soldiers as dependent on nonprofit food shelters to feed their families. And as much as 60 percent of military housing has been described as substandard.
Better sticks and bricks may not address the lasting impact of combat on a young person, but builders can take an active role in creating homes for those who need them now. If you want to get involved right away, contact John Gonsalves and sign on with Homes for Our Troops. Good housing will give today's survivors from Iraq a fighting chance as they live out the span of their lives bearing the wounds of combat.
The Unkindest Cut Dozens of soldiers have been paralyzed with crippling spinal cord injuries in Iraq. High-tech home controls offer them the best hope for some independence.
Despite years of advances, neurosurgeons still can't stitch a severed spinal cord back together. Such injuries, resulting in full or partial paralysis, can be more devastating than amputated limbs. Veterans may face a long life with only the slightest bodily control.
Bob Ensinger, communications director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) in Washington, says the 30 or so paralyzed Iraq veterans (as of June 2004) vary in level of disability, from the loss of both legs to the loss of all but their facial muscles.
“Every person is different, and [his or her] house has to be treated that way, too,” Ensinger says. “Each will have different needs. Psychologically, some will move on quickly and pursue new goals. Others will never adjust.”
Architect Mark Lichter designs accessible housing for the PVA. He says that voice-activated smart-home technology holds great promise for paralyzed veterans, but most veterans, with fixed disability payments of about $3,000 a month, can't afford the technology. He notes that by far the most important design feature for a paralyzed veteran's home is its ability to accommodate a wheelchair. But other features can greatly improve a vet's quality of life such as motorized windows. “One problem right now is that no one has invented a way to motorize double-hung windows,” Lichter says, “and that's the type most builders use.”
He adds that the $50,000 grants offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs barely scratch the surface of a paralyzed veteran's needs—in two-story homes, elevators alone can eat up most of that money. “There are tax incentives in many states that can defray some of the costs of accessible products and features,” he says, “but it's extremely important to get a contractor who's concerned about the client.
“I get a lot of calls from veterans saying that after the work is done, a house is still not accessible,” Lichter continues. “For example, the builder may put in a wheelchair slope that is technically accessible, but a 1-over-12 slope is too much for a person with weak arms or one arm.”
Lichter adds that an accessible house doesn't have to advertise itself as such. “You need to balance the psychological needs of other family members,” he says. “You may have some countertops that are lowered and others that are standard height. And you don't just put a wheelchair ramp on the front of the house like a wart. You can hide it with plantings, and make it nice looking.”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC.