View Full Version : Program helps heal old wounds

01-30-06, 06:59 AM
Program helps heal old wounds
January 30,2006

Jason Keough spends his days at the Disabled American Veterans post in Jacksonville or talking with Marines injured in Iraq.

Because he’s one of them.

Keough, 28, had a section of his right leg ripped off by a rocket during the U.S. assault on the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in March 2003. He was one of the first casualties in a struggle that has killed 2,250 American troops and wounded another 16,472. He has lived with his scar from this war longer than most.

And those scars are not simply physical. Beyond the skin grafts and the bone transplants, the wounds and the prosthetics, some of those injured in war face other burdens like financial debt and few ways to make money.

It’s not necessarily about paying medical bills for surgeries or hospital stays. It’s about the smaller expenses that add up: the hotel rooms for family during hospital stays, certain items that may not be considered medical necessities by insurers, but are to the wounded. It’s about lost time at work for the family of a wounded warrior.

A new program, which began in December, offers those wounded in war since October 2001 a way to climb back financially. Traumatic Injury Protection Under Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (TSGLI) coverage can pay wounded active duty and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as much as $100,000 to help ease the financial hardships on them and their families.

And those hardships can be immense. Keough racked up medical debt after he got out of the Marine Corps and needs to buy items that aren’t covered by medical insurance but are still necessities: skin cream to keep his leg from splitting and bleeding, new shoes to ease the pain of walking.

He can’t work a satisfying job because of the narcotics he takes, and the Social Security Administration doesn’t consider him disabled. Contact with congressional leaders in his home state of New York and in North Carolina has done little to help.

So he’s depended on himself.

“You’re on your own,” he said. “You have to be actively persistent if you need the help.”

‘Nobody knew’

Keough rode into Nasiriyah in an Amtrak with his fellow Marines from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines. As he remembered it, their objective was to secure a northern bridge. But their trak broke down.

“It finally had enough of the desert and broke down right on the bridge,” he said.

They got off and boarded another trak, which came under fire. One of the rockets penetrated the vehicle’s shell. It set off munitions. A fire ball ripped through the trak and the Marines inside.

Keough, his leg in shambles, remembered being dragged from the trak and pulled into another one. Keough was medevaced from Nasiriyah as the sun was setting.

But he wasn’t out of the woods. There were plans to amputate his leg, but in the end, doctors put an external fixator on him that basically held his leg on.

The trip back to the United States took him from the floating hospital ship Comfort to Kuwait through Germany and back to Bethesda.

But once he was healed enough, Keough got out of the Marine Corps.

“Being active duty, I kept wanting to get out,” Keogh said. “I wanted the private sector to work on me. I thought it would be better. It’s not. (If I had to do it over) I would have stayed in longer until I was fixed.”

Keough said a loophole during his transition from active duty to veteran forced him to pay for his pain management appointments for about a month.

While Keough wishes he stayed in the Corps longer for the care, he also said he doesn’t think the military was prepared to deal with the wounded at the outset.

“The first bunch of us, I don’t think we were prepared for the severity of the wounds,” he said. “I don’t know what they were thinking. I don’t think they were ready to handle us financially. The biggest problem was nobody knew where to go to find out what you can do for yourself.

“It’s better now.”

‘A central point’

Gunnery Sgt. Ken Barnes knows how much things have changed for wounded Marines. He’s lived it.

Barnes was wounded in Iraq in November 2004 when an improvised explosive device went off as the up-armored humvee he was riding in drove by. Barnes was up in the gun turret and took damage to his left wrist. Shards of shrapnel severed his artery.

Many transports and several surgeries later, Barnes arrived back at Camp Lejeune. Lonely and with little to do, he went looking for the injured guys in his unit that had been sent back. He couldn’t find them. Most were home with their families on convalescent leave.

Now, injured Marines can stay together at the Wounded Warrior Barracks aboard Lejeune. Barnes, the top NCO at the barracks, now helps run a place that not only helps wounded Marines work out the physical and the emotional issues of being injured, but also the more practical things.

Barnes said they have financial advisors come in and talk to the Marines about how to manage money. The barracks also works as a point of contact for groups that are out to help wounded Marines. Organizations like The Fisher House Foundation, which provides families with plane tickets to visit their wounded son or daughter in the hospital.

There are hundreds of groups out there that can help injured Marines financially or some other way, Barnes said. More of these groups are found every month.

“We’ve created a central point of contact,” he said. “I don’t know every organization, I don’t know everything. My job is to point them in the right direction.”

And part of it is just passing along advice. For example, Barnes told the Marines about the TSGLI forms and how it was “the most painless amount of money they could get.” They seemed unimpressed.

Once Barnes got his funds from the government — he declined to disclose the amount — he brought his bank statement in and showed the wide-eyed Marines.

“I had a stack of paperwork the next day,” he said. “These kids right now might not be seeing that they need it. But they can invest it for the future when they are out.”

In many ways that’s the crux of the issue. Guys like Barnes and the other injured Marines at the barracks don’t have many expenses related to their injuries. Guys like Keough, who leave the Marine Corps either by choice or not, don’t have as many resources.

“As long as they are active duty, they don’t have to pay for much (in terms of medical care),” he said. “It’s after they get out you start seeing the problems.”

‘The biggest thing’

Marines like Keough are trying to bridge the gap.

While dealing with his injury has created difficulties in his own life, it has given him the experience to aid those wounded after him. Keough now takes injured Marines under his wing and helps them through the red tape.

Keough recently collected $100,000 from TSGLI payments. He got it a week after filling out the papers.

But there are ways to get it faster and ways to get it slower. It’s all about navigating the system, he said.

“I know some guys that went another route and they’ve been waiting for months,” Keough said. “If someone came to me, I can tell them where to get (the forms) off the computer, fill it out, get the appropriate signatures and send them to the right hands.”

For those Marines who are not long in the Corps and need help, Keough says the best thing they can do is seek out the local chapters of prominent veterans organizations.

Keough’s days at the DAV are spent reworking its Web page and talking with Marines. While he can’t work and can never feel as well as he did before the injury, Keough said he’s happy to be doing something to help others.

“Not only am I helping myself, I’m helping a lot of buddies that are injured,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

Contact staff writer Chris Mazzolini at cmazzolini@freedomenc.com or at 353-1171, Ext. 229.