"I felt like they were waiting for me to die ..."


“Good morning,” Dawn Jirak answered the phone at the VFW office.


“Thank you,” the voice on the other end said with great relief. “Thank you.”

Jirak, VFW Assistant Director of Veterans Health Policy and Air Force veteran, didn’t need to ask the caller’s name. She knew immediately. It was Army veteran Gene Huston.

“When I went to bed, I had six dollars in my bank account,” he said. “Today, my balance is $78,000 and six dollars!”

For Huston, it was a long journey to this day, one riddled with frustration and government delays.

Huston joined the Army at age 20 as his mother was dying of cancer. Wrought with grief, Huston spent his years in Vietnam fighting the enemy and excelling at it. But those dark experiences have haunted him every day since.

“I returned from Vietnam a different person. I tried to drown myself in alcohol. I had three failed marriages. I’ve had the same repetitive nightmare for 40 years. I just can’t escape the mental shrapnel I took in Vietnam.”

More troubles started when he was notified that the Department of Veterans Affairs was unexpectedly rescinding the majority of his benefits.

He turned to VFW in 2008 to appeal the decision that took away his grant of unemployability, reduced his disability for PTSD and denied service connection for hypertension and heart disease.

“It was a major blow. With a single letter, I was reduced to poverty. I couldn’t afford running water or sewer services. I ate tuna five nights a week. I just couldn’t believe what was happening,” he shared.

After VFW demonstrated that Huston was rightfully entitled to those benefits, his rating decision was adjusted accordingly in February 2011—a major victory. (The VA asked for additional information about the hypertension and heart disease.)

But then the waiting began. Week after week, he would check his mail. Nothing. Meanwhile, his financial and health problems were mounting.

Huston didn’t understand what was happening—he felt lost in the system after waiting for benefits he should have received right away.

“At one point, I really thought they [the VA] just hoped I would die waiting,” Huston said.

Jirak wasn’t going to stand for it. After digging deeper, she discovered the VA had put his entire case on hold.

“We insisted that the error be corrected immediately,” she said. “And within a few weeks, it was.”

With the correction made, Huston received the $78,000 retroactive award. He is now also receiving a monthly payment to
cover living expenses.

“I think I’ll buy a new pair of tennis shoes,” Huston said, when asked what he might do with the retroactive payment, “Or take a trip to see my buddies from Vietnam. Once you’ve learned to live on so little, it’s hard to spend much at all.

“It’s been a long road,” Huston said tearfully. “But my advocates at VFW, they get a gold star. They stood by me, along with my partner in life, Jackie.”

“I was happy to help,” said Jirak. “If VFW wasn’t here, veterans like Gene might just fall through the cracks. I never want to see that happen.”



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