Injured vet fights for benefits

Editor’s note: In this story, The Daily Illini profiles a U.S. veteran injured in duty and his fight to obtain benefits for his injuries. A follow up story next week will conclude the series and will detail the process by which veterans receive their benefits.

In 2002, Jason Wheeler, Champaign resident and veteran of the U.S. Navy and Army, was involved in an accident that forever changed his life.

Wheeler, 39, jumped out of a helicopter for a training exercise at Fort Polk, La., where his Army recon platoon was stationed.

Leaping at 1,500 feet, he said everything was going fine until about 250 feet when he hit a wind pocket that collapsed his parachute.

Wheeler said his risers were in the way, preventing him from pulling his reserve parachute.

“And then at 50 feet, I had nothing.”

As he fell, Wheeler said he focused on the tarmac until he touched down with his left ankle first, then his whole right side.

“My buddies kind of dragged me off to the side and thought I was good to go,” Wheeler said. “It was just one of those deals where you check my shorts and make sure I was okay.”

It turned out to be much more than “just one of those deals.”

Amid several years of uncertainty, Wheeler was finally diagnosed in 2007 with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome. The nerve condition is also known as Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, a chronic pain nerve condition.

Wheeler is now in a wheelchair, and said it is likely he will remain there for the rest of his life. Despite being injured while enlisted in the military, Wheeler said he has had difficulty receiving the benefits and treatment he needs to deal with his condition, calling the process a “vicious cycle.”

Wheeler was able to walk until about a year and a half ago, but said he often fell because of lack of feeling in his feet. Now, his nerve condition has spread to just above his knee and to his hands through his elbows. His immense pain and sensitivity in his legs prevents him from wearing pants and submerging his legs in water for extended periods of time.

About a year ago, Wheeler began trying to obtain power mobility for his van and wheelchair to ease transportation.

Wheeler said he has been fighting Veterans Affairs, or VA, for this power mobility to improve his quality of life.

“It’s just right to get all that stuff. People shouldn’t struggle so hard if you’re in this position,” he said.

Wheeler was discharged from the Army with severance pay in 2004.

“I couldn’t feel my feet,” he said. “That’s a huge issue. Somebody just shouldn’t be getting $20,000, (and told) ‘hit the door, here you go, you’re all set for a couple months to get an apartment.’ That’s what happened to me.”

Since his condition has spread to his hands, it is difficult for him to use a regular wheelchair and even more difficult for him to get in and out of a vehicle. He said he frequently flips over in his wheelchair when getting out of his van. He added the chair will also roll away from the car if there is even a slight angle in the ground.

“It’s just a nightmare,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler will wait about a year from now for a divisional review officer to review his case and decide if he should receive the benefits for power mobility.

“I shouldn’t have to wait years in order to get the stuff I needed two years ago,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Back when Wheeler first began using a wheelchair, he said he waited four months for the Danville VA to provide him with a replacement for his broken chair. In the meantime, Wheeler turned to the University athletic department, which loaned him an old chair from storage.

Adam Bleakney, disability sports coach for Illini men’s and women’s track, field and racing, helped set up Wheeler with the wheelchair.

“I know he was having some problems getting the VA to work with a lot of speed on some things,” Bleakney said. “We set him up in the chair until the VA could come through. That’s just the way things work.”

Bleakney said he was impressed with Wheeler’s determination after he heard that the veteran had pushed the University’s “rickety” old wheelchair over 20 miles for exercise and with how appreciative he was for the loaner chair.

Vicky Ray, an advocate for Wheeler and other veterans, said she believes Wheeler was “grossly neglected” by the Danville VA.

“The poor guy didn’t have his feet washed and his legs washed for over a year,” Ray said.

As of press time, calls to the Danville VA were not returned.

Ray worked under the George W. Bush administration as the Texas state representative for the severely wounded to the U.S. Department of Defense. She was laid off after Bush’s tenure, but still uses her connections from the position to help veterans throughout the nation.

She said Wheeler’s nerve damage issues were never addressed appropriately and that he never received “TRICARE,” which is an insurance veterans receive from the military that allows them to get free health care from a civilian doctor.

Wheeler said he is willing to undergo amputation to have less pain and better mobility with prosthetics, but can only do so through a doctor outside of the VA.

“You feel like your stuck back in Vietnam where you can’t get any help,” he said.

He added that the rarity of his condition also likely contributed to his situation.

“If this is my only thing, I’ve got to be stuck in a wheelchair, then you should at least be able to make things adaptable,” he said.

Wheeler first served in the Navy during the Gulf War as a firefighter aboard the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy.

After leaving the Navy in 1993, Wheeler attended various schools in his home state, from New Hampshire Technical Institute to the University of New Hampshire. Throughout this time he was always working full time with his father’s business, Wheeler Electric.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Wheeler said he made a personal and emotional decision to enlist in the Army. He originally had two ship out dates for the Marines, but had to wait on medical records from the Navy. He opted for the Army because they would take him immediately.

He began in a regular line unit, but then moved up to a recon platoon of 12 soldiers.

He served stateside in Fort Polk, La., where his platoon trained others to go over to Iraq along with training for themselves for an overseas tour.

Although his condition has gotten worse over time, Wheeler said he maintains a positive attitude through the support of his wife, Stephanie — who is three months pregnant with twins — and three-year-old daughter, Sophia.

My wife has been my backbone, my support system, my best friend, my everything person,” he said. “Whatever it takes and whatever I need, she’s always there for me. Even though it’s more stress on her, she’s always there.”

When one of his Army buddies from Fort Polk said he had the perfect girl for him, Wheeler did not believe such a thing was possible.

“Dude, there ain’t no perfect girl, let me tell you right now,” he said to his friend.

After one weekend and a $990 last-minute plane ticket to Champaign, Wheeler and his wife were engaged. About four months later they were married.

“In the military you just never know what’s going to happen to you,” he said. “You know right off the bat if it’s the right girl.”

In addition to his family, Wheeler uses the memory of his fallen comrades for support, especially Ryan Maseth, a green beret. Maseth’s tragic death in 2008 by electrocution at an Army base in Iraq received nationwide media attention.

“He’s the toughest 24-year-old kid I ever met in my life,” Wheeler said. “I just think about him and I get strength from him to keep on going and that’s how I’m able to do more and more things with my wife and family.”

On top of Wheeler’s physical disabilities, he also suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and what he calls “survivors guilt.”

He added that he sometimes feels things could have happened differently if he were able to be overseas with close friends in the Armed Forces that he lost.

“I find ways to kind of cope with it,” he said. “I don’t think you can ever get over my traumatic experience of feeling like I was dying.”

Wheeler emphasized that he is more concerned for other veterans who may be in the same situation now or in the future, and hopes that by getting his story out, he can.

“I want to help them out so they get the benefits that they deserve right now, because we earned them,” he said. “No one is looking for a pity party, but they just want to take care of each other.”