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20-year servicewoman, disabled by war, faces ruin

| Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011

PORTLAND, Ore. — Aggravating a combat training injury, Sgt. 1st Class Diana Clark's back and neck gave out in Iraq in 2006. The soldier's heavy armor slowly tore apart discs and muscles, just as the images of Mosul's dead swaddled in linen wore down her mind.

But she didn't return from war until an automobile accident sent her husband into a fatal coma. With his income now gone and her injuries barring a return to her civilian boilermaker job, Clark is stuck with a house she can't afford to fix or sell in a collapsed market.

"Over three months, my life turned upside down and I couldn't turn it right side up," said Clark, 55, who also worked at a strip mine when she wasn't doing duty in the Navy, Army Reserves and National Guard.

Her kitchen's electrical wiring is shot, so she heats dinner noodles in the flickering light of a piano lamp. During the day, the "weekend warrior" with nearly two decades of military service counts spare parts in an armory tool room.

Clark has been in the Army's Warrior Transition program for 3 1/2 years, first at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, then at her Oregon home, part of a special initiative for Reservists and National Guard troops called the "Community Based Warrior Transition Unit."

That has meant taking orders from both a hospital two hours north by car and a "cadre" office more than 500 miles south in Sacramento, Calif. She thinks that's led to a lack of compassion and deaf ears turned to her calls for help.

"Rarely do you ever see any of them. They're voices on a phone, words in an e-mail," Clark said. "If you're physically broken, that doesn't mean that you're morally broken. They talk to you like you're deficient, like you're defective. But I'm not defective! I'm just hurting."

Citing health privacy concerns, Joint Base Lewis-McChord officials declined to comment about Clark's case.

Warrior inaction

A military historical archivist by training, Clark says she's "barely treading water" financially, and after her discharge she will drown. Although she draws active duty pay — about $48,000 annually — she says that's a third less than her civilian income. Her military pay will be cut another third when she leaves the service and must subsist on retirement income.

Clark says almost all of what's left then will be gobbled by mortgage payments, residential taxes and utilities, leaving her with no way to find the $50,000 that workmen say she needs to bring the house up to code for sale. After four surgeries, she says she can't muster the physical endurance to fix the house herself.

A federal Housing Assistance Program mortgage buy-out program meant for broken soldiers like her could stave off bankruptcy, foreclosure or homelessness, Clark says, but Army officers have balked at approving her application.

She's been asking for help since March 31, according to Army documents obtained by the Tribune-Review. The paperwork shows that she wasn't just trying to save her home, but also to get pain relief and physical therapy she needed to heal.

Commanders took no action until the Trib contacted them Dec. 13, the records indicate. A conference call the following day between Clark and officials in Sacramento and Lewis-McChord finally delivered the medical care she needed — but no help with the house.

Files show commanders balked at setting a precedent by declaring that she's injured enough to qualify for the housing program — at least until after Veterans Affairs can complete her benefits package. They don't know if they can move her to a cheaper town if she ends up in bankruptcy or foreclosure.

Clark says the Social Security Administration determined she's permanently disabled by her war injuries, but the other agencies aren't obligated to listen.

"Failing to help me now is pushing me into a choiceless choice. Unless someone in Washington, D.C., helps, I lose my house," Clark said. "The new commander here is really trying to help. He cares. He really cares, but I'm facing ruin."

Turnover issues

Overseen by former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Noel Koch, investigators at the Pentagon's Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy wrote in early 2010 that Guardsmen and Reservists like Clark too often risked "falling through the cracks" nationwide, according to files provided to the Trib.

At Georgia's Fort Stewart, the investigators wrote that "extremely limited" services were provided for demobilizing Reservist and National Guard units.

The Army couldn't even count how many Reservists had been processed through the hospital at Georgia's Fort Benning, the reports state. The papers stated that the base lacked enough primary case managers to treat patients, and that soldiers often received incomplete medical records and had to spend "their own money to come in for medical appointments."

Jay Ebbeson, a spokesman for Joint Base Lewis-McChord's Madigan Hospital, said in a written statement that Clark's installation was acting on recommendations from a similar Army investigation into the treatment of Oregon National Guardsmen.

Redeploying soldiers now receive thorough medical reviews, and Western Regional Medical Commander Army Maj. Gen. Philip Volpe is making other changes, Ebbeson said.

In the Pentagon files, investigators estimated that 500 National Guard and Reserve soldiers administered through Madigan Hospital had no nurse case managers. Nurse case managers are key to the Wounded Transition program because they ensure continuously good medical and psychological care for patients.

Ebbeson said that the soldiers didn't have ailments so complex that they merited entry into the program. He said they were afforded all the care they needed and that Madigan recently added six special case managers to help them. He said the Warrior Transition unit has "a good history of keeping nurse case managers" and the Sacramento office had a senior case manager with 12 nurses under her, a number that's consistent with Army standards.

The Pentagon files, however, report that Madigan's nurse case managers and Veterans Affairs liaisons complained of "high turnover" and a "lack of consistency amongst medical providers." Similar problems were found at other bases nationwide.

On Tuesday, Clark said that she was going to receive her eighth nurse case manager since entering the program in 2007.

"I called it the 'Madigan merry-go-round.' You would go around and around, and you never got any better," she said.

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