Disabled N.D. Guard soldier denied VA compensationWhen Staff Sgt. John Awender got back from Iraq with the North Dakota National Guard’s 817th Engineer Company in summer 2008, he hoped that since he wouldn’t be hauling around 60-80 pounds of gear and equipment his back would heal. But that’s not the way it turned out.
By: Toni Pirkl, The Jamestown Sun
When Staff Sgt. John Awender got back from Iraq with the North Dakota National Guard’s 817th Engineer Company in summer 2008, he hoped that since he wouldn’t be hauling around 60-80 pounds of gear and equipment his back would heal.
But that’s not the way it turned out.
Instead, Awender’s back problems continued to plague him. He went back to work as a groundskeeper at Jamestown College in August 2008. By March 2009, he couldn’t physically handle the job anymore and had to quit.
“I’ve been a laborer all my life,” he said. “Being a groundskeeper at the college was the closest I could get to farming. I loved the job.”
Awender said he fell while he was in Iraq and after that occurred, going on missions was agony. His back took a beating from the equipment and bouncing around in a vehicle, he said. And a pinched nerve caused his leg to go numb. Then it would take him 24 hours to recover, he said.
“I continued to go on missions. If I didn’t go someone else would’ve had to,” he said.
During the year he spent in Iraq, Awender saw doctors about his back. Then on his return to the U.S. he had medical testing done at Fort McCoy, Wis. Following an MRI, he was diagnosed with a degenerative disc, which means that even surgery is unlikely to fix it. Since then he’s been seeing Department of Veterans Affairs doctors, going through physical therapy and driving to Fargo for vocational rehabilitation.
“The VA doctor claimed me disabled back in March,” he said.
Awender said he has bad days and not-so-bad days physically. Thursday was one of his bad days. The 43-year-old Guard member was bent over and shuffling along, more like a man twice his age. He tries to avoid taking pain pills, he said, as they make him groggy, but the pain is nearly constant. He can’t sit, stand or walk for very long and he doesn’t know what kind of work he could possibly be trained to do at this point.
Now Awender’s unit commander is in the process of giving the 16-year military veteran a medical discharge from the National Guard. Awender said that’s a tough one, but as he can no longer perform his duties, it was inevitable. Awender spent four years in the Army and Army Reserves before joining the Guard in Minot in 1998.
He said the Guard was going to be his retirement.
“The Guard waited as long as it could but I’m a hindrance to them now. I’m no longer deployable,” he said. “I would need a miracle to stay in.”
Although it’s painful to no longer be a part of the military, Awender’s woes are worse. He applied for permanent disability compensation through the VA and was denied.
“They say the degeneration of the disc is a pre-existing condition,” he said. “They say it’s not military-related, but I went through three months of training at McCoy before we went to Iraq. I passed all the physical training tests. I used to run before I went to Iraq, now I can’t walk easily up the stairs.”
Awender is appealing the decision, but it could take years. Meanwhile, what he and his wife, Angie, have achieved during 14 years of marriage is disappearing. Because John can no longer work, their savings are gone and they’ve had to reduce expenses across the board. Their house is now on the market because they can no longer afford to live in it. The couple, who have two sons, ages 8 and 11, are on their way to losing everything they’ve worked for in their lives.
“The system is there to protect the veteran and it’s failed me. The system has failed me and my family,” John Awender said, tearing up.
In a phone call to the VA, Public Affairs Officer Peggy Wheelden said she could not comment on anybody’s case because of privacy regulations.
Roger Parsons, a friend of Awender’s and former co-worker, was in the military for 36 years. Parsons said the weight of the equipment that Awender carried is what damaged his lower back. He wants to “get the right people working on the appeal.”
“I’m a veteran,” Parsons said. “We’re all part of the military organization and we have to look out for each other. John deserves to get what he’s got coming.”
To help offset the family’s financial situation, Parsons and other “Friends of John and Angie” are spearheading a spaghetti benefit dinner today.
“We’re putting on the benefit to get some help for him,” he said.
Sun reporter Toni Pirkl can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org