Veteran’s Day Blog Post: Michael Wells

At COSF we have a simple mantra – They Stood for Us. We Stand With Them.  We are committed to providing support for veterans from any generation, regardless of discharge status.  Veterans with “bad paper”, who were separated from the military with Other than Honorable discharges – often as a result of untreated Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury - are falling through the cracks.  Soldiers like Michael Wells, a veteran whose two combat tours left him with both mental and physical wounds.  In his own words, Mike tells us about the challenges he and his family continue to face.  This Veteran’s Day, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read his story and join us in our efforts to ensure that no veteran family is left behind.  – Kristy Kaufmann, Executive Director, Code of Support Foundation

I want to get my story out there to raise awareness for PTSD, TBI and Other than Honorable discharges. Not everyone who has a less than Honorable discharge is a scumbag. Some of us were simply reacting to situations that were out of our control. I did what I did because I feared for my safety and the safety of those around me. There is hope for us.  – Michael Wells, Combat Veteran

Shortly after graduating high school at 18 years old, I went down to the recruiting station.  I was drawn to the Navy for the sole purpose of becoming a Navy Corpsman; a Medic attached to a Marine unit. After talking to the Navy recruiter, it was determined that prior injuries would bar me from enlisting in the Navy. I went next door to the Army office to see what my options were. The recruiter was showing me a tape of certain Army Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) and the only one that appealed to me was a Tanker.

A few months later I was on my way to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, to start training as a Tanker. After 18 weeks of training I received orders to go to Baumholder, Germany. The unit that I was joining was already midway through a deployment in Iraq. I was only there a short time for extra training before I joined them in Iraq.

Upon deploying back to Germany, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and I initially refused treatment. When I wasn’t on duty I was drinking. It was especially easy for me because I was in Germany and it was easily accessible. I realize now that drinking was a symptom of my PTSD.

I eventually deployed back to Iraq. This time, I sustained more trauma than in my first deployment. I was involved in a mortar blast that threw me against a hesco basket which resulted in physical injuries from shrapnel including a traumatic brain injury.

During my second deployment, I enrolled in the Bonus Extension and Retraining (BEAR) program to change my MOS. I was sent mid-deployment to Ft. Gordon, Georgia. While attending classes to become a 25U (Signal Systems Support Specialist) I sought treatment for my previously diagnosed PTSD. My NCOs at Ft. Gordon wouldn’t allow me to go to treatment if they could help it. When I did go for treatment at the Eisenhower Army Medical Center they would mark me as Did Not Report to formations. My superiors were constantly harassing me. They told me that I wasn’t a real man due to my PTSD and that I was a “worthless soldier”. They were the very definition of ‘toxic NCO’. My barracks at Ft. Gordon were across the street from a makeshift forward operating base (FOB) that trained soldiers for Iraq. I was woken up almost every night by simulated IED’s, mortar rounds and gunfire. My repeated attempts to seek support from others outside my NCOs were dismissed.

After threatening to my Psychiatrist to go AWOL if the issue of harassment and poor living conditions wasn’t fixed, I finally left Ft. Gordon. I was gone for just over 30 days and reported back to Ft. Knox to be discharged. I was given an “Other than Honorable” discharge. Little did I know at the time how that would impact the rest of my life.

I tried working during the first 2 years of civilian life. It was suggested from family friends that I apply for social security benefits. My wife and I had 2 small kids and we were barely making ends meet. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to work for much longer due to my disabilities and was approved for Social Security benefits within 2 months of applying.

I first applied for VA benefits in 2010 through my Florida Congressman’s office and was immediately denied due to my discharge status. I appealed and attached all of my medical documents, including the notes from my Psychiatrist where I threatened to go AWOL. After conducting a C&P to see if there was a connection between my having PTSD and going AWOL, it was finally determined after 3 years by the VA that my  Other than Honorable discharge was not a bar to benefits. I received a letter from the VA stating that they were overturning their decision and "The evidence shows that the Veteran served honorably in a combat MOS, with two Iraq deployments. Post-deployments, the service treatment records clearly show ongoing PTSD/depression problems. The VA examiner's opinion confirmed the PTSD symptom role in the AWOL time."

I re-filed for VA benefits and got my Senator’s office involved to expedite the process since it had already been 3 years since the initial filing. I had heard that if you appeal within a year of the denial (and it is overturned) that your benefits will be backdated to the date of the original application. After over a year of working with the Senator’s office, my claim was partially approved. After 4 years, I received 70% partial disability for PTSD alone. I am still waiting on the VA to complete my claim for Tinnitus, Hearing Loss, Sleep Apnea, and TBI & Hip Issues.

The fight is far from over. I am still trying to get my discharge upgraded. Given the letter that I received from the VA, I hope it won’t be too hard of a task. But you never know what will happen when dealing with the Government.

I want to get my story out there to raise awareness for PTSD, TBI and Other than Honorable discharges. Not everyone who has a less than Honorable discharge is a scumbag. Some of us were simply reacting to situations that were out of our control. I did what I did because I feared for my safety and the safety of those around me. There is hope for us. The military and the VA may want you to think that there’s nothing you can do to change it and that our situations are hopeless but they aren’t! You can get the benefits that you deserve. It’s a long fight, but it’s worth it.

And on today of all days, I want to wish you a Happy Veteran’s Day. I know that you might feel less deserving than others. But remember this: You served. You deserve the all of the praise and thanks that you may get.