De­spite red tape, group helps vet­er­ans’ fam­i­lies

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ANN SCOTT TYSON

Ma­rine Cpl. Raul Oli­vares Jr. was ly­ing in a ward at the Na­tional Naval Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Bethesda af­ter be­ing wounded by a road­side bomb in Afghanistan’s Hel­mand prov­ince when he learned that his home, in a trailer park in Texas, had been flooded.

It was a hard blow fi­nan­cially for Oli­vares and his wife, Leslie, who had left her job to care for their 3-year-old daugh­ter and then moved to Bethesda to care for her hus­band.

“We were hav­ing fi­nan­cial dif­fi­culty, and the in­jury made it worse,” said Leslie Oli­vares, whose hus­band has had about 20 surg­eries on his frac­tured legs. “We were hav­ing too many ex­penses.”

Many wounded ser­vice mem­bers find them­selves in tough fi­nan­cial straits. What makes the Oli­vares fam­ily un­usual is the way they ended up get­ting help.

A char­ity called Troops Need You that is ac­tive at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter had at­tempted to reach out to wounded troops and their fam­i­lies at the Bethesda hos­pi­tal since the spring but was turned away.

It then con­ducted its own “coun­ter­bu­reau­cracy” op­er­a­tions to pro­vide the aid, ac­cord­ing to its founder.

“ They are block­ing pri­vate sup­port

en­ti­ties” at Bethesda, said Eric Eg­land, an Air Force Re­serve lieu­tenant colonel who launched Troops Need You in 2007.

Eg­land said his group, which raises funds to pro­vide emer­gency as­sis­tance for wounded ser­vice mem­bers and sup­plies to troops in com­bat zones, sub­mit­ted in­for­ma­tion re­quested by Bethesda but was told re­peat­edly by the hos­pi­tal’s li­ai­son of­fice that a pro­gram for chan­nel­ing benev­o­lent sup­port to the wounded was not yet in place.

Hos­pi­tal of­fi­cials con­tacted last week said the prob­lem was prob­a­bly the re­sult of an ad­min­is­tra­tive over­sight and of­fered to apol­o­gize.

“I re­ally can’t ex­plain how this hap­pened,” said Col. Chuck Cal­la­han, chief of staff at the med­i­cal cen­ter. “I’mnot of­fer­ing ex­cuses.”

Hos­pi­tal spokes­woman Sandy Dean said any group of­fer­ing a do­na­tion of more than $25 has to un­dergo screen­ing by the le­gal of­fice, and then the hos­pi­tal li­ai­son of­fice de­cides whether to ac­cept the aid. She said the hos­pi­tal has on­go­ing re­la­tion­ships with four main benev­o­lent groups.

To cir­cum­vent the bu­reau­cracy, Eg­land spent $2,000 in the sum­mer to take out a full-page ad in the Jour­nal, the news­pa­per of the Bethesda med­i­cal cen­ter, in which he of­fered as much as $1,000 in emer­gency aid for fam­i­lies of ser­vice mem­bers be­ing treated at the hos­pi­tal.

Leslie Oli­vares was shown the ad by the wife of an­other wounded Ma­rine and im­me­di­ately called to ask for help. The char­ity sent a rep­re­sen­ta­tive, who took her shop­ping for clothes for her daugh­ter and a lap­top for her hus­band.

Eg­land was glad to be able to help the Oli­vare­ses but re­mains concerned about the ob­sta­cles to reach­ing more fam­i­lies in need at Bethesda.

To help spread the word, Eg­land re­cruited re­tired Ma­rine Sgt. Jimmy King, who was un­der­go­ing treat­ment at Wal­ter Reed for in­juries from a 2004 bomb­ing in Iraq and who had re­ceived help from Troops Need You for car and rent pay­ments.

King and his wife, El­iz­a­beth, vis­ited Bethesda and spoke with 20 fam­i­lies of wounded or ill Marines, 17 of which expressed in­ter­est.

“Un­for­tu­nately, Bethesda is sort of looked over — ev­ery­one goes to Wal­ter Reed,” El­iz­a­beth King said. “We got to know their story, then brought it up. No one wants to say, ‘We’re in fi­nan­cial trou­ble.’ ”

Rosa Chiri­nos, 52, was one of those speak­ing up. Chiri­nos had left her job and home in Florida in the spring to care for her son, Lance Cpl. David Chiri­nos, 23, whose can­cer was di­ag­nosed dur­ing a de­ploy­ment in Kuwait and who re­turned to Bethesda for treat­ment in Septem­ber 2009.

Chiri­nos, who is the sole source of in­come for his mother and two broth­ers, has had re­peated surg­eries and chemo­ther­apy. But as money grew tight, Chiri­nos found that be­cause he was ill, not wounded, he had fewer places to turn for fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance.

“It’s been hard find­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions that can help out,” he said dur­ing an in­ter­view at Bethesda, where he and his fam­ily live at Fisher House, which pro­vides lodg­ing and sup­port for fam­i­lies of pa­tients. “I was mede­vaced, but be­cause I was not wounded I didn’t get the same op­por­tu­ni­ties. I was not a ca­su­alty of war.”

Rosa Chiri­nos was wor­ried that she would lose her home be­cause she could not make mort­gage pay­ments. “One day I was cry­ing, ‘What will I do?’ ” she said. “I saw the news­pa­per and said, ‘Oh my God, I have to call.’ ”

In July, Troops Need You made two mort­gage pay­ments for Chiri­nos.

The group also reached out to Army Spec. Robert War­ren, who suf­fered a trau­matic brain in­jury in Afghanistan in May when his truck was struck by a rocket-pro­pelled grenade. War­ren re­ceived spe­cial­ized treat­ment at the hos­pi­tal’s TBI unit.

War­ren, the sub­ject of a Washington Post ar­ti­cle on trau­matic brain in­jury in Oc­to­ber, was liv­ing with his di­a­betic wife, Brit­tanie, and new­born child in one cramped room in his in-law’s house in Arkansas when Eg­land’s group con­tacted them.

When the cou­ple found a small apart­ment in Dar­danelle, Ark., Troops Need You paid for two months’ rent, al­low­ing War­ren, who is seek­ing land­scap­ing work, to have enough for di­a­pers and other es­sen­tials.

Eg­land said he in­tends to help more troops at Bethesda, with or with­out of­fi­cial sup­port. Cal­la­han in­vited the group to con­tact him di­rectly about pro­vid­ing as­sis­tance.

“We’d love to ex­pand our op­er­a­tions, work­ing in co­op­er­a­tion with the Bethesda staff,” Eg­land said. “ The bot­tom line is there are un­met needs of these troops whose lives have been turned up­side down, and we need a whole-of-coun­try ef­fort. So as a tax­payer, it’s frus­trat­ing when tax­payer-funded bu­reau­cra­cies block pri­vate sup­port to Amer­ica’s heal­ing troops.”

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Wounded Afghanistan vet­eran Josh Ker­ber and his wife, Katie, re­ceive an an­niver­sary gift at their Sil­ver Spring apart­ment through Troops Need You.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Eric Eg­land of Troops Need You hugs Katie Ker­ber af­ter he and his wife, Ania, de­liv­ered a tele­vi­sion and me­dia cabi­net to Ker­ber and her hus­band, Josh. Josh Ker­ber was wounded while serv­ing in Afghanistan.

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