Despite red tape, group helps veterans’ families
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.”
Wounded Afghanistan veteran Josh Kerber and his wife, Katie, receive an anniversary gift at their Silver Spring apartment through Troops Need You.
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.