Recently Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill) rained hell-fire down on CEO of Strong Castle Inc., Braulio Castillo, for misrepresenting his injury and veterans status to gain a competitive advantage while bidding on IRS contracts. The video of this exchange went viral on social media. Duckworth slammed Castillo for comparing his injuries to those suffered by our heroic veterans. Castillo evidently injured his foot while attending a U.S. Military prep school, but later went on to play college football. He subsequently used his prep school injury to receive government contracts based on his status as a “disabled veteran”. Currently, Castillo has a disability rating of 30% from the Department of Veterans Affairs . The VA describes service-connected disability compensation as “a monetary benefit paid to veterans who are disabled by an injury or illness that was incurred or aggravated during active military service.”
Right now, veterans are waiting an average of 237 days for their initial disability rating to be assessed. Some of this backlog could be attributed to people like Castillo who are submitting bloated or inflated claims.
In March of 2002, I was involved in a tragic artillery accident at Fort Drum, NY, that left two of my friends dead, and 13 people injured. My left calf was blown off by shrapnel from a 105 mm Howitzer round that landed a mile and a half off its target, right near the tent where my unit had been eating breakfast.
I spent 8 months undergoing multiple procedures in an attempt to salvage my lower left leg. The physical therapy was excruciating and I suffered unrelenting pain as the nerves tried to regenerate and I tried to gain mobility. These attempts were ultimately futile with 80 percent of my leg between my knee and foot simply not there. In November of 2002, I opted to have my injured leg amputated to improve my quality of life. Similar to Congresswoman Duckworth, however, the pain didn’t go away when my leg was removed. I also feel sensations in a part of my body that was amputated over a decade ago, ranging from itching to feeling as if my foot is being torn to shreds. From the outset, doctors and other military personnel told me that I was going to get 100 percent disability rating upon my medical retirement from the Army.
I was also told how to go about getting this elevated disability rating. Any veteran will tell you about the numerous briefings you have to attend when you are separating from the military. These briefings are designed to help you navigate the transition from service member to civilian. One such briefing guides you through the process of submitting your claim for benefits and compensation to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As a soon-to-be-retired soldier, I was told to document all of my ailments. I remember listening to Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers tell soldiers to exaggerate any injuries or pain they had for the VA claim with the express intent to be awarded a higher disability rating. Issues from shaving bumps to sleep apnea, from hearing loss to leg and back injuries are all claimed as being service connected. While so many veterans have serious claims to disabilities, many are just hitting up the cash cow to see how much they can get.
As I prepared my VA claim, I was asked about past injuries specific to my knees and back. A few years in a light infantry unit (which is anything but light) can wreck your knees and back. I claimed one minor injury to my knee, solely because it was in my medical records provided to the VA. I was asked repeatedly if I had any symptoms from the artillery accident that could be viewed as PTSD, to which I honestly responded no.
As Ms Duckworth indicated in her public service message to Mr “30 Percent” Castillo, a below-leg amputation is “worth” a 40 percent disability rating, which is what I was ultimately awarded. By the numbers, it appears that missing my leg below the knee makes me a mere 25 percent more disabled than a man who hurt his foot, and then went on to play collegiate sports.
I spend every Monday afternoon at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, volunteering as a CrossFit coach. I encounter men and women who have recently survived devastating injuries, many of them with missing limbs and traumatic brain injuries. These soldiers show up at the gym at a low point in their lives. I’ve been where they are now, and I try to show them by example that, while their injuries will never go away, they can adapt to their injuries and regain much of their former fitness levels. These veterans inspire me with their determination to overcome horrific circumstances. I am honored to be able to demonstrate to them that they can thrive, just as I have, despite their injuries. They face the new challenges in their lives with grace and fortitude.
The added challenge that malingerers are delaying their VA claims makes me angry.
My VA disability claim was processed over ten years ago, but that does not mean that my status as a disabled veteran was a one-time event: obtaining my disability rating. I will probably apply for veterans’ benefits from time to time throughout my life. For example, I am beginning to research the programs available to help me to finance my own small business. My eventual goal is to open my own CrossFit gym. I was recently accepted to a health education and kinesiology bachelors program at George Mason University. I was concurrently selected as a Tillman Military Scholar, a competitive scholarship sponsored by the Pat Tillman Foundation. This scholarship will allow me to combine the lessons learned though my military service and my education to continue my service to others.
I hope to use this educational opportunity to increase my knowledge in the field and to open my own fitness facility. My goal is to be able to help others, veterans and civilians alike, to improve their lives through fitness. As is the case with most American families, though, we have to plan our finances very carefully. Taking the risk of leaving a stable IT job to open a gym is a terrifying prospect. As a disabled veteran, I hope there are loans and grants available to help me realize this dream. A part of me doesn’t want to appear like I’m “gaming the system.” Do I really “deserve” the help I hope to receive? And then I look down at the space below the hem of my cargo shorts to the titanium rod extending down into my shoe. And I think of the good I can do in the lives of others. And so, I hope that I would never be on the receiving end of criticism like Congresswoman Duckworth dished out to Mr Castillo. I will appreciate any help I qualify for, and look forward to entering a new phase of my life, even if it means relying on my disabled veteran’s status.