Monday, October 18, 2010

SC vet wounded in Iraq fights VA for back surgery

From The Rock Hill Herald in S.C.:

Look at Brian Dunn (pictured), and you see the "USMC" tattoo across his arm, the Marine haircut and his flashing eyes when the talk is about bombers that he spent so long fighting and yes - killing - in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

Bombers that almost killed him, too.

"Once a Marine, always a Marine," says Dunn, like countless Marines have said because it is what Marines say, and it happens to be true - even when the Marine is not active anymore.

Dunn is fighting to get the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for artificial disc replacement surgery in Germany. Back surgery, he says, could give him a normal life again.

But that surgery is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so the VA will not pay for it.

Brian Dunn is medically retired and disabled. A roadside bomb blew up the Humvee in which he was the turret gunner on May 9, 2005. The bomb killed his best friend and knocked the Humvee on top of Dunn. He probably should be dead.

But he is alive. He survived compression fractures in his back, busted eardrums, a broken jaw, wounds to his legs, a torn rotator cuff. He has Marine Corps commendations and a Purple Heart, but his body and mind are not the same as they were before he went to Iraq.

Dunn has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from the bombing.

When he came back from Iraq, Dunn was just 22, wondering what he would do with the rest of his life. He had enlisted in the Corps straight out of high school. He had never done anything else. He never wanted to.

Dunn is fighting with the help of a Marine captain named Charlie Hall, who is originally from York.

Hall assists injured Marines in both Carolinas. The Iraq war veteran works out of Greenville as the injured support officer for the Wounded Warrior Regiment, an official Marine Corps unit created in 2004 to help wounded and sick Marines with health and social problems after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq showed that the need was there.

For Marines such as Dunn, Hall is a case manager and social worker.

He helps Marines who were trained as infantry - not paper pushers or insurance experts - maneuver through the system of post-Corps services that can be so tricky and so daunting.

The regiment has 30 officers like Hall around the country who meet face-to-face with Marines. There is a network of other support services, from medical teams to family support.

Although Marines make up just 10 percent of the fighting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 27 percent of the troops injured are Marines, and 23 percent of those killed were Marines, according to the Department of Defense.

More than 870 Marines have died, and almost 8,800 - like Dunn - have been wounded.

"Our job is to fill in the gaps, to help Marines just like Brian get the benefits and help that each of them has earned through their service to the Marine Corps and the country," Hall said. "We do not bash the VA. We do not bash anyone. What we do is help Marines get through it all."

Dunn was medically retired in 2006 after his injuries. He started work later that year with the U.S. Postal Service, even though he had what was determined as partial disability.

By the end of 2009, he had married Erica, and between the two of them, they had three children - and the pain from his back was too much to handle.

"Here I was, a Marine, and I am at my (postal) machine, and I started crying from the pain," Dunn said.

Since then, he has been unable to work and is home on the Family Medical Leave Act.

"The whole time has been a struggle for us as family," said Erica Dunn, "a tremendous trial to get through."

As if that weren't enough to deal with, on Thursday, this Marine who served his country and almost died for it had his power cut off for non-payment.

Dunn has asked the Social Security Administration for full disability status. His first request was denied because his disability is not seen as permanent, and he could do some kind of work.