Building a Nation Fit for Heroes

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1 Building a Nation Fit for Heroes paralyzed veterans of america 2011 annual report

2 P A R A L Y Z E D V E T E R A N S O F A M E R I C A On the cover: Paralyzed Veterans helped me each step of the way. Elias Rojas U.S. Marine Corps veteran

3 Building a Nation Fit for Heroes Our nation s veterans with spinal cord injury, having served their country honorably and faithfully, deserve nothing less than to be able to fully participate in society, not held back by barriers to their earned benefits, lack of access in the physical environment, lack of jobs, limited recreational opportunities, or a medical community without adequate funding to improve spinal cord care. Through all we do, Paralyzed Veterans of America strives to remove those barriers and build the nation our veterans deserve a nation fit for heroes. PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT 1

4 The stories in this annual report are our veterans stories: their struggles and triumphs, triumphs that we at Paralyzed Veterans are proud to share in and to share with you. 2 PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT

5 p r e s i d e n t s m e s s a g e Dear Friends, In these uncertain times, marked by a stagnant economy, the highest jobless rate in decades, and health-care costs that rise as services shrink, many organizations have chosen or have been forced to scale back and wait for better days. At Paralyzed Veterans of America, such a retrenchment has never been an option. In fact, the opposite is true. In 2011, our mission and the pressing needs of our members veterans with spinal cord injury or disease (SCI/D) compelled us to respond at the same or even greater level than in previous years. As the Department of Veterans Affairs seeks to provide care for our newest generation of wartime veterans as well as those from past conflicts, many veterans are confronted with long waits, claims-processing delays, or other barriers to prompt receipt of medical care and their due benefits. And for veterans with SCI/D many more obstacles await. To counter this bleak outlook, we sharpened the focus and expanded the scope of our outreach to veterans. We launched Mission: ABLE, an all-out effort to engage citizens, communities, and corporations to help veterans and their families receive what they need most: care, benefits, and jobs. This year s annual report bears the theme Paralyzed Veterans of America Building a nation fit for heroes. Certainly Mission: ABLE and other program initiatives took this to heart. Paralyzed Veterans programs have an impact on almost every facet of life for veterans living with SCI/D: ensuring adequate health care and benefits, fighting for denied benefits and advancing veterans law nationally, increasing employment opportunities, monitoring laws and regulations and advocating for veterans best interests, improving accessibility across the nation, providing sports and recreation, and furthering research into better treatments and one day a cure for paralysis. Every morning I begin the day knowing that on this day we will make a difference in the life of a veteran. We thank you for helping us serve our nation s heroes. Know that our efforts on their behalf will never cease, and with your continued support, we can achieve even more for all who have served and sacrificed so much. The stories in this annual report are our veterans stories: their struggles and triumphs, triumphs that we at Paralyzed Veterans are proud to share in and to share with you. Bill Lawson Paralyzed Veterans of America National President PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT 3 3

6 VETERANS BENEFITS Fighting for Earned Benefits THE LAST THING ANY MEMBER of the U.S. armed forces should have to worry about when he or she comes home is, where are my benefits? And for newly injured veterans overwhelmed with uncertainty and doubts about their future with spinal cord injury, the last thing on their minds is filling out and filing forms to receive those benefits. But dealing with paperwork as quickly as possible after discharge from service is crucial to their timely receipt of the benefits due from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The sooner they file, the faster they can begin rebuilding their lives. This is where our Veterans Benefits Department (VBD) comes in. VBD field staff meet with veterans even while they are recovering in VA medical centers, identifying benefits the vets are entitled to and helping them begin to navigate the often-confusing bureaucracy surrounding veterans benefits. Our service officers assist with claims for service-connected compensation, nonservice-connected pensions, home health care, specially adapted housing, adaptive equipment grants, and much more. In order to provide the highest level of assistance, staff members must be experts in veterans law and VA regulations and the appeals process, and know how to apply that knowledge to fight for veterans when benefits are denied. Our annual week-long training program for service officers is recognized as one of the best by VA and other veterans service organizations. 4 PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT

7 VETERAN ELIAS ROJAS Boston Marine Corps For ELIAS ROJAS nothing tops being in the Marine Corps. To be a U.S. Marine is to be a U.S. Marine, he says. You re considered an elite part of the military. He loved the uniform and what it represented, and relished every moment. Unfortunately, his military career ended far too soon. In 2008, while stationed at Camp Pendleton, one night after a party Elias volunteered to drive the car of a friend who had been drinking. On the way home, they were involved in a car accident. He sustained a C-5 spinal cord injury (SCI). An investigation ensued. Two other Marines who had been driving alongside the car carrying Elias and his friend gave affidavits that all vehicles were traveling between 60 and 65 mph. But the military estimated his speed at 100 mph or more, and determined that the accident resulted from speeding a willful misconduct violation. Despite failing to find any factual evidence of speeding or 5

8 VETERANS BENEFITS Paralyzed Veterans worked with me, each step of the way from figuring out what I wanted to do to matching me with an employer. Today I m back at work. I love my job and enjoy continuing to serve our nation. I couldn t have done it without Paralyzed Veterans of America. any speeding ticket issued by California Highway Patrol, the military refused to budge from its position. And because of its finding, Elias was barred from receiving benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Months passed. Assistance was requested from the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Commandant of the Marine Corps, Secretary of the Navy, and Senator Ted Kennedy s office but to no avail. Even with those powerful people intervening, the military would not change its initial decision. Elias s situation was very bleak: dealing with physical recovery, loss of his career and identity, inability to work, and living only on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). The struggle was overwhelming; he was almost without hope. SSDI was my only source of income, Elias remembers. I was rationing what I spent. My wife was a full-time student and worked two part-time jobs, but even then we did not make enough to make ends meet. We had a very limited lifestyle, and we lived in an apartment at my in-laws house. Anxious about the future, he felt pressure to find a job, but nothing was available. I wanted to provide for my family, but I felt as though this would never be a possibility, he says. I tried to stay as positive as I could and not let the situation weigh me down but some days the reality of it all was too much to bear. He is such a great, great kid, says Joe Badzmierowski, a benefits advocate with Paralyzed Veterans of America. The accident that left him quadriplegic was tragic enough, but to go through what he had to endure was an unimaginable hardship. Badzmierowski met Elias and learned of his situation during regular rounds at the West Roxbury SCI Center. That was when the long journey with VA began. As he does for all newly injured 6 PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT

9 veterans, Badzmierowski initiated claims on Elias s behalf and started preparing the case to try to have Elias s injuries found to be in the line of duty. Then he could receive the benefits he desperately needed. It was a massive challenge and it shouldn t have been if the correct legal decision based on our claims and appeals was made in the first place, Badzmierowski says. But Paralyzed Veterans prevailed. In 2011, Elias was awarded service connection at 100 percent, plus special monthly compensation, an added benefit in addition to regular disability compensation. Paralyzed Veterans also helped Elias establish entitlement to the auto and specially adapted housing grants. Paralyzed Veterans has a reputation not only for our expertise in VA statutes and regulations, but those of the Department of Defense as well when it has such a direct impact on one of our members, Badzmierowski says. We went through hundreds and hundreds of pages of evidence line by line and made the case why we believed the decision made by the military was incorrect, and VA agreed with us. Because of our credibility, the respect we have earned over 60 years, and our record of successful advocacy, we were able to succeed. When I first met Elias in his hospital room, I told him Paralyzed Veterans would not let him down, and we didn t we changed his life. But Elias still wanted to work. In the Marines he had been deployed in logistics, and also had some customer service experience. Ken Lipton, a Paralyzed Veterans Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment) counselor, was sure that those skills could be put to good use in the workplace. I was able to help him in getting a short-term contract position with Verizon, Lipton says. Then I told him about an information receptionist position with the U.S. Department of Justice in Boston and encouraged him to apply. Lipton wrote a Schedule A letter (eligibility for federal appointment) for Elias, who subsequently was hired. Elias could not be happier. My wife still saw me as the man of the house, but I didn t feel that way because I couldn t bring in funds. Now I can. It s the best feeling in the world, he says. Paralyzed Veterans worked with me, each step of the way from figuring out what I wanted to do to matching me with an employer. Today I m back at work. I love my job and enjoy continuing to serve our nation. I couldn t have done it without Paralyzed Veterans of America. His life has just changed, says Badzmierowski. It is very gratifying to see the difference in his demeanor. Today Elias is planning for a future that now holds promise: I have been the type of person who has always appreciated what I have, and I was always hopeful and positive despite my injury, he says. Now I feel a lot less stressed out because I can truly focus 100 percent on furthering my recovery and building a better future for my family and me. I want to find a job back in the military if I can. I still feel a part of the military. That s actually my dream job: to be back in the Marine Corps, to be back around it I love the Marine Corps; I really do. Paralyzed Veterans offers assistance with claims and appeals to any veteran, family member, or caregiver not just individuals who have sustained spinal cord injury. PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT 7

10 VOCATIONAL REHABILITATION Empowering through Employment A RECORD HIGH RATE of unemployment is one of the greatest challenges facing our nation today. For veterans with catastrophic injury, the problem is even worse an unemployment rate of 85 percent. Working to reverse this trend, Paralyzed Veterans launched Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment), specialized vocational rehabilitation services administered by our Veterans Benefits Department. Operating in six offices located in Department of Veterans Affairs spinal cord injury centers across the country, Operation PAVE is an aggressive outreach and placement program for veterans with catastrophic injuries, as well as their family members. Locating in VA facilities enables PAVE counselors to give personal assistance to veterans in need of employment, counsel them on career goals, and inform them of training and educational opportunities while helping with résumé and interview preparation. PAVE counselors then link these veterans with employers who understand the value veterans bring to their workforce. Since the establishment of our first vocational rehabilitation office in 2007, Paralyzed Veterans has helped more than 200 veterans achieve vocational fulfillment, restoring their sense of self-worth and helping them build financial security for themselves and their families. 8 PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT

11 VETERAN CHRISTOPHER GRAVES McChord Air Force Base, Washington Marine Corps CHRISTOPHER GRAVES, a 29-year-old veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, joined the service believing that it s good to serve your country. He enlisted in the Marine Corps because if you re going to join the military, choose the hardest (branch), and earned the rank of lance corporal as a radio operator from 2001 to In 2002, Chris was taking part in mountain warfare training, which required quickly hiking in snowshoes about eight miles up and down a mountain. During the exercise, he noticed pain in his back, but attributed it to the arduous training. Eventually, however, the pain would grow to the point where he could not ignore it. When he returned to duty after a week off, the pain also returned during the six-hour bus ride back to the base. At that point, he was still unaware that he had ruptured three disks in his spine a condition that led to his eventual retirement. After leaving the military, Chris got work in a machine shop a job that required much lifting and bending. PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT 9

12 VOCATIONAL REHABILITATION Currently more than 350 businesses and organizations are partnering with Paralyzed Veterans in Operation PAVE to offer employment to our veterans, including 112 that have hired employees through our program. Already suffering from paralysis in his toes and serious back pain, he realized the strenuous job was only going to worsen his injuries. It s a pain thing, constant pain, he says. The nerves just die. The doctors told me, you can t do that anymore. A job in a grocery store followed, but he wisely decided his future would have more options if he got a college degree. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Chris went on to earn associate degrees in humanities, social/behavioral science, and business administration. He seemed set to rejoin the workforce. But even with three college degrees, he still could not find work. He tried employment agencies and other vocational assistance programs experiences that he found frustrating and unproductive: I would call and they would send me in loops. It was going to be a long process. They would tell me to fill out another form or go back to school. Leaving California, where he had attended college, Chris moved to Kent, Washington, and connected with Michael Killen, Paralyzed Veterans service officer in Seattle. Killen worked with him to help obtain the benefits and services to which he was entitled, and referred him to Paralyzed Veterans Vocational Rehabilitation Program. After that, Chris says, things went really fast. When I talked to them [Paralyzed Veterans representatives], they wanted to help me. I m sure they do that with everybody. In mid-january 2011, Chris spoke with Joan Haskins, a PAVE vocational rehabilitation counselor in Long Beach. Through distance counseling, Haskins discussed his job objectives, career goals, and workplace skills, and then helped him draft a résumé and submit it to potential employers. After a successful interview at McChord Air Force Base in Washington state, Chris was offered a job as a store associate at the base commissary. On April 11 after five years of unemployment Chris was finally back in the workforce. I now work in a cash office, but I can work anywhere [in the commissary], he says. If things get really busy, I can go on a register I m really fast at it. If a really disabled vet comes in, I help them shop. He says his commissary job makes him feel a bit like he s back in the Corps. He thrives on the environment at the base and especially enjoys his interaction with the veterans who frequent the store. It s all military, old retired vets. They can be crusty, a little grumpy, and they have goofy stories, Chris says. [My job] pays pretty well, he added, but it s not just about making money it s about helping vets PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT

13 VETERAN DENITA HARTFIELD Bakersfield, California Army DENITA HARTFIELD had planned to be career Army. She enlisted in 1992 to serve my country and see the world. With enthusiasm and passion, Denita moved from one role to another. She held positions as an analyst and assisted leadership training in state-of-the-art global positioning systems. As a weapons of mass destruction team leader, she maintained 100 percent accountability for sensitive items in excess of $3 billion. She led, coached, and mentored team members in sustainment training. In the years after 9/11, she deployed with the 1st Infantry Division to Afghanistan and Iraq for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Then in May of 2005 while serving in Mosul, Iraq, her unit was ambushed during a recovery mission. One of our convoys had gotten attacked and (insurgents) were set up and waiting for us, Denita says. There were explosions and gunfire. Several people were wounded. I had a headache right away. That headache indicated that Denita had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), along with cracked ribs and a cracked tailbone. She had no visible wounds, but she knew from the headaches, body pains, and ringing in her ears that she was badly hurt. In spite of her injuries, she hid and ignored the pain so she wouldn t be sent home. PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT 11

14 VOCATIONAL REHABILITATION Two weeks after the attack, she collapsed. Fluid had built up around her heart to such a degree that it stopped beating, a condition known as pericarditis. Then all of her injuries were diagnosed. The next year and a half was spent enduring multiple surgeries and physical therapy. My motivation throughout my entire recovery was returning to full duty status, Denita says. I negated that my injuries were prevalent enough to end my career because there were so many other soldiers that were killed in action or lost limbs. Those guys are the real heroes. I had to return to combat in their honor and there was nothing to convince me that I was not going to return. Eventually, however, in 2007, she was medically discharged with an 80 percent service-connected disability rating. She used her medical severance to move to a home in Bakersfield, California, to be near her grandmother. Denita, who has a master s degree in criminal justice and weapons of mass destruction, accepted a job as dean of students at a local business school, but faced hardships on the job not due to her disabilities, but because those disabilities were not apparent. Administrators at the college didn t understand her injuries, absences, or ongoing medical appointments. I d get ridiculed every time I had to go to a medical appointment, she said. I m not what people think a disabled veteran should look like. Several times a week she had to travel to Sepulveda and West Los Angeles VA hospitals to treat the TBI and Paving Access for Veterans Employment Nationwide Caseload: 1,045 Number of clients actively seeking placement: 375 Number of clients successfully placed in vocational activities: Operation Enduring Freedom/ Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans served: Partner for Life (one year post placement and receiving lifetime vocational services): post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which caused insomnia and nightmares. Her boss complained every time she needed to be out of the office. Denita compensated by working 12- and 13-hour days. She couldn t sleep, so she would work. She met every deadline and had exceptional performance reviews, despite her struggles. But that didn t satisfy her superiors. Ultimately, when asked to postpone a surgery so her boss could take a personal trip, Denita had reached her limit. You know how difficult it is to schedule a surgery through the VA, she explains. Then, like so many veterans with catastrophic injuries, a long, unfruitful search for employment began. She could not rely on VA disability payments because those still hadn t begun. It took two years before she began receiving them, putting her in a precarious financial position. She went without work for two years, but continued her volunteer efforts on behalf of veterans. I was disabled, but I could still provide for my country, she says. That s all veterans want to do continue to serve. Denita held PTSD meetings for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, addressed policy issues on Capitol Hill, and spoke to boards of supervisors in various counties to educate policymakers on the need to assist returning combat veterans. Then in March 2011 she began receiving vocational assistance from Joan Haskins, a Paralyzed Veterans Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment) counselor. Haskins recognized Denita s advocacy experience and helped her apply for a position with U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy as a veterans constituent for California. (Joan) was so encouraging and honestly understood the struggles of veterans who work so hard to return to the workforce, Denita says. Although I did not start in the position due to funding limitations, I continued to serve and support the veterans of California. Meanwhile Haskins corresponded with Denita every two weeks, sending links to employment opportunities, providing support documents to increase her visibility among applicants, and keeping her engaged. 12 PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT

15 While employed with the U.S. Marshal s Investigations Operations Division, Denita is completing her PhD dissertation in organizational management and leadership that focuses on transitioning veterans leadership into state and federal law enforcement. I offered information, job leads, and support as she sought interesting and meaningful work which would capitalize on her military skills in the civilian world, Haskins says. The whole process of thinking about jobs, researching them, applying, waiting, waiting, and still more waiting to hear from an employer can take such a long time (especially for federal positions). The job hunt process is stressful. Denita continued an aggressive job hunt, and I continued to share job leads. It was not too long before her résumé and application packages were in front of company HR managers who recognized what Denita had to offer. In July Denita accepted a position with the U.S. Marshal s Investigations Operations Division; her top secret security clearance and her military experience and education made her an ideal candidate for the agency. She cannot comment on the specifics of her work but says the job is perfect. I get the same sense of camaraderie that I felt in the military because we are all focused on the same objective: protecting and serving America, she says. And no one questions her injuries or ongoing medical needs. As veterans we are more than our combat injuries, Denita says. We are assets to help restore stability to America. She explains that veterans are mission driven, have leadership training, and work under high levels of pressure. She emphasizes that veterans leadership abilities and training can yield positive results in a time when financial constraints can hamper extensive training. Denita exemplifies the value veterans can provide to the workplace and, like Paralyzed Veterans of America, believes employers should look to veterans first. PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT 13

16 MEDICAL SERVICES AND HEALTH POLICY Maximizing the Care Environment OUR MEDICAL SERVICES AND HEALTH POLICY staff members perform the crucial function of ensuring the highest standard of patient care and recovery in Department of Veterans Affairs facilities through site visits. In 2011, Associate Executive Director Lana McKenzie, RN, BSN, MBA, and her team doctors and nurses with experience in spinal cord injury (SCI) medicine and care made 30 site visits, assessing every VA-operated SCI center and many long-term-care facilities and outpatient centers across the country. Focusing on what will best facilitate recovery of patients in each center, they inspect facilities, confer with staff, ensure previous problems have been corrected, and, most important, talk directly with patients about their needs, noting areas or services that require improvement. This covers any aspect that could benefit spinal cord injured patients, including the number of long-term-care beds available; state of equipment; staffing levels; staff morale; and layout of rooms, hallways, and therapy areas even handicap parking considerations. When things need to change, Medical Services continues to monitor and ensure corrective action is taken. Our oversight results in significant improvements at many medical centers. 14 PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT

17 Infection is the leading cause of death for people who have lived with spinal cord injuries for two years or more. * After sustaining such injuries, the body s immune system is compromised, which makes fighting infections at times impossible. For this reason a lengthy stay in an SCI center, with its heightened risk of exposure to the staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria, is a less-thanideal situation. MRSA, or staph, is resistant to *Statistic from spinalcordinjuryscitreatment.com. most antibiotics and can result in skin infections, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, blood poisoning, and endocarditis, a life-threatening infection in the heart. Because hospitals are known to be a breeding ground for germs, and with SCI patients prone to secondary infections, when they are exposed, they may contract MRSA, says McKenzie. The trend in SCI in the past five years [in Department of Veterans Affairs SCI units] is when a patient has Lana McKenzie (standing), associate executive director of Medical Services & Health Policy, and National Vice President David Fowler (center), conduct interviews during a site visit at a VA spinal cord injury unit to ensure proper care for veterans. PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT 15

18 MEDICAL SERVICES AND HEALTH POLICY a staph infection, VA closes the whole room to care for that one patient, or they put two MRSA patients together. This is not the ideal situation. By limiting room occupancy to just one patient, the SCI unit loses the use of valuable bed space, which is at a premium. But cohorting (combining) patients in rooms with only one bathroom the current design increases the chance of cross-infection. Recognizing this problem, Paralyzed Veterans Medical Services team has been making a strong case with VA medical centers that separate bathrooms for each patient in a shared room would eliminate or lessen the increased risk. We always advocate for the appropriate number of staff to care for SCI patients, and now also by suggesting changes to the environment of care, PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT

19 The floorplan and a newly completed patient room show the design featuring separate bathrooms for patients sharing a room. This design helps to reduce the spread of infection. Design Approach Program McKenzie says. This is a way to reduce infections and maximize capacity. It wasn t in VA s mind that this could be a tactic in the fight against MRSA. Medical Services teamed with Paralyzed Veterans architects on a design that would give each patient a bathroom and still retain the room s practicality for physician and nurse utilization. The architects solution is a redesigned layout of shared rooms, where at the end of each bed, each patient has a private bathroom. This alone will reduce the risk of cross-infection significantly. The new spinal cord injury unit at the Milwaukee VA Zablocki Medical Center is the first to adopt the design. Notes McKenzie, Many are following. Denver is soon to be open with this model, as well as Syracuse. It costs VA less to do this than to care for someone who lingers in the hospital and, most important, the patients benefit. PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT 17

20 ARCHITECTURE Recognizing Visionaries for Accessibility PARALYZED VETERANS IS THE ONLY veterans service organization to have its own team of architects. Working with Department of Veterans Affairs design teams, our design professionals influence every project that affects individuals who receive care in VA spinal cord injury facilities and regularly join our Medical Services team to assess and improve conditions at these facilities. Nationally, Paralyzed Veterans Architecture Program has brought about positive change in design beyond the scope of spinal cord injury unit design initiatives. Our architects frequently are asked to consult on accessibility standards and building codes, and to work with cities and municipalities to improve access in public facilities and transportation systems. They advance accessible design through teaching, public speaking, seminars, and publications that deal with accessibility issues and approaches to eliminating barriers in the built environment. 18 PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA 2011 ANNUAL REPORT

21 Page 18: Front row, from left: Virginia Mid-Atlantic Paralyzed Veterans Chapter Vice President Terry Labar; Sports Director Charlie Hayden; President Charles B. Chuck Willis; and Paralyzed Veterans Executive Director Homer S. Townsend, Jr. Standing: Treehouse designer James Roth and architect John Connell. This page: An accessible treehouse designed by architect James Roth. 19

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