Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tiny Contra Costa veterans department changing lives

Jonathan Atherton was standing atop the Humvee turret swiveling his machine gun when darkness enveloped him.

The Concord Army corporal woke up confused two hours later in a different Iraqi city. Others in his squadron teased him for falling asleep on the job. The gunner in the Humvee behind him saw what had really happened.

As Atherton's patrol passed underneath a bridge, a child had dropped a cinder block on his head. His helmet saved his life, but he had a traumatic brain injury that sent him down a troubled path not uncommon for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Atherton's injury and accompanying post-traumatic stress disorder are common experiences at a tiny, little known Martinez office where veterans go to get better. Amid a billion-dollar-plus annual county budget, a tidy $595,000 finances the Veterans Services Department. The six-person staff turned that investment into $84.6 million in services and care for Contra Costa veterans last year.

"We have a huge impact and it goes beyond the monetary numbers," said Phillip Munley, the department head. "There's people who couldn't live without benefits from (Veterans Affairs)."

The service officers shepherd veterans through the federal agency's giant web of bureaucracy. They complete the mountains of paperwork and follow-up casework that many veterans attempt to tackle alone.

"As an educated corporate manager it would've been almost impossible to navigate Advertisementthrough the complexities associated with the VA administration," said Joseph Callaway, a 65-year-old Vietnam War veteran from Danville. Callaway joined the county program in 1993 when he contracted non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer directly related to Agent Orange. The department also helped the former infantry platoon leader deal with other Agent Orange-related illnesses, as well as hearing loss due to explosions.

"Their commitment to veterans is beyond my words," Callaway said.

The latest round of across-the-board county cuts trimmed more than $11,000 from the department's budget, eliminating part-time workers and reducing Friday hours. This is occurring while the division's workload has dramatically increased, as new veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We've wracked up OT on weekends and holidays to keep pace," Munley said of extra unauthorized hours spent serving a county with an estimated 70,000 veterans.

In the past two years, monetary benefits are up 52 percent. The department submitted 2,193 claims and appeals last year, a 20 percent increase over the previous two years, and handled 5,489 office interviews, up 7 percent from the previous year.

Atherton symbolizes the new client from an ongoing war. He was sent home from Iraq in spring 2007, a couple of months after his best friend died in a Humvee explosion. Atherton was sent home after he confronted a superior who he felt was responsible.

Adjusting back to civilian life was not easy. As he walked off the plane at a Dallas airport to rousing applause from travelers, Atherton felt angry his buddy could not experience it.

The newly returned veteran spent his first four months on a Las Vegas bender.

"I used all of the money I had saved. I spent it on drugs, gambling, booze. The typical Vegas deal. It was Sin City, you go there if you don't care."

He returned to Concord a different man. He took a job at Hickory Farms but quickly lost it after punching an 18-year-old co-worker who gave him an order.

"I didn't know what to do," he said.

A veterans group sent him to Munley. The 27-year-old soldier reluctantly signed up. Infantrymen often ostracize one another if they seek such help, he said — tough guys don't need a counselor or medication.

After months of filling out paperwork, Atherton was granted a 100 percent disability, opening up a wealth of financial and medical doors. It still took him awhile to cash his first check as he battled feelings of guilt.

Now, with free medication, therapy and counseling, Atherton has turned around his life. With his disability pension he bought a computer for school and a black convertible Camaro. He plans on attending culinary school.

His steady income will also allow him to fly out his 7-year-old son, Adam, for Christmas. Atherton hasn't seen his son, who lives with his mother in Oklahoma, since he was deployed to Iraq. The government also will pay for Adam's college tuition.

"That's one of my dreams coming true there," Atherton said. "I really just don't know how to thank them."

"These are things they've earned through sacrifice to their country." Munley said.

After seeing what was available, Atherton took his surrogate grandfather, Korean War veteran Lon Menchen, to the county agency. Menchen, who has terminal cancer, finally got his benefits.

Atherton shakes his head when asked where he would be without the county agency's help.

"I'd probably be under a bridge, homeless and on drugs, doing the whole rejection-from-society thing."

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