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Ailing vets turn to charities in larger numbers

Feb. 21, 2013 - 09:50AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 21, 2013 - 09:50AM  |  
Brandon Pelletier sits with his dog, Skylar, Feb. 19 at a park near his home in Chula Vista, Calif.
Brandon Pelletier sits with his dog, Skylar, Feb. 19 at a park near his home in Chula Vista, Calif. (Sandy Huffaker Jr. / USA TODAY)
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Susan Rocco starts authorizing help on a litany of pleas from wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at 7 a.m. in her home north of Quantico, Va.

One is a young Marine veteran living in a shelter who needs clothing and electricity turned on so he can go back home; another is a Marine missing a leg who visits his parents but needs a ramp built to get into their house; and a third is hospitalized for attempted suicide, and his wife needs travel money to visit him.

Rocco is eastern-region case director for the military charity Semper Fi Fund. As the hours unwind through the day, she authorizes 34 grants worth $37,000 to help dozens of current and former troops in need.

And that's just on Friday, Feb. 1.

"The need is increasing, people don't realize (that)," she said later. "They think the war is over and there's no service members in the hospital, so there's no more need. But it's our long-term cases that need help forever, and now the returning vets that we find have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury); and many, many, many suicidal situations, which is just a crisis."

With the Iraq conflict over and Afghanistan combat winding down, a war-weary nation is turning its attention elsewhere. The Afghanistan War was not even among the top 10 news stories of 2012, according to The Associated Press.

"Our country has a short attention span," said Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour, which offers free counseling to post-9/11 veterans, military members and their families. "As the stories slip off the front page, will the average individual donor care as they did during the height of the war?"

Meanwhile, military charity groups such as Semper Fi and Give an Hour are seeing record levels of demand.

After a decade of war, the Department of Veterans Affairs has treated 866,000 of the 1.6 million who have served since 9/11.

The numbers are ticking up more rapidly in recent months as troops damaged by repeated deployments leave the military. There were 50,000 new veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2012, including 16,531 added in just the last quarter. That's 184 new PTSD cases per day.

"I feel like our work is just beginning," said Karen Guenther, Semper Fi founder and president.

Ailing veterans are turning in droves to charity groups, Semper Fi among them, to fill gaps in government care. It assists active troops and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The group, founded in 2004 by a group of Marine wives, has seen the grants double from 2010 to 2012, and those payouts to assist specifically with TBI and PTSD are skyrocketing, Semper Fi data show.

One of those they have helped is Brandon Pelletier, 25. Pelletier was a Marine reserve machine gunner standing in the turret of an armored Humvee in 2007 during a night mission when a buried explosive detonated under its wheels.

The blast rolled the vehicle and, before Pelletier could pull back inside, his right arm was crushed from the elbow down. No one else was hurt.

Today, his arm is intact but paralyzed below a prosthetic elbow. He suffers from PTSD and mild-to-moderate traumatic brain injury.

"PTSD and TBI are the ones that really get you," said Pelletier, who medically retired in 2010. "When you're trying to have a normal daily life, you can't remember half the things that you need to do."

Within a few days after he was evacuated from Iraq to what is now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a case worker from Semper Fi visited.

"She just kind of sat down on the edge of my bed and asked me about my life," Pelletier recalls.

Semper Fi reached out to him nearly every week during the months of convalescence, offering help on issues beyond government assistance. Pelletier said he resisted at first, embarrassed with accepting what he saw as handouts. But the caseworker gently persisted.

"She broke through, and she said, ‘Brandon, I understand you're trying to do this on your own," he recalled. "‘(But) there's got to be something we can help you with. The American people say we want to help these guys, so let us help you.' "

He finally agreed to receive help with gas money so he could get to out-patient appointments, the first of several grants that would include money for: tiding him over when pay was interrupted, covering transportation costs for cross-country moves, assisting with new furniture and helping to purchase a truck with an automatic transmission he could drive with one arm.

Semper Fi case manager Christine Jones, a lawyer and wife of a Marine, now counts Pelletier among 1,400 veterans or service members she monitors regularly, some for years.

The veterans often must wait months for their first disability check, a period when they can be without income, she said. Compounding circumstances is the ever-present struggle to reconnect with family after physical or mental health has been altered by war.

"We're there to get them over that hump, to make the transition," Jones said.

One part of a caseworker's job, she said, is simply to listen.

"There are times when they need help more than once, and it's not because they're not trying," Jones says. " It's because it's hard sometimes to pull it all together."

Meghan Hoyer contributed to this story.

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