Army Reserve Spc. Michael Pyatt mounted a machine gun on the turret of his Humvee in August 2005 for another mission into the volatile city of Hillah, Iraq. As he stepped off the bumper, he landed awkwardly, injuring his hip and back and leaving him crippled.
Back home, he asked for a medical discharge.
In July 2007, his unit tried to deploy him a second time, even though he wore a knee brace and used a cane.
Just months later, the Department of Veterans Affairs declared Pyatt permanently and totally disabled. Yet today, more than five years after he was hurt, the Army still has not declared Pyatt unfit for duty, which would make him eligible for disability retirement pay and medical insurance for his wife and daughter.
Pyatt, 38, struggles to get by. He is deep in debt and must make frequent trips from his home in Bonne Terre, Mo., for free treatment at VA facilities in St. Louis.
"I've fallen through the cracks," he said. "I've been abandoned."
Pyatt's story is an example of a military disability system that Congress and others contend is woefully unprepared to deal with the of hundreds of thousands of troops injured while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stories of disabled service members forced to wait months or even years for benefits are nothing new, but several veterans advocates said waits as long as Pyatt's are rare.
"It's getting borderline criminal," said retired Air Force Col. Mike Hayden of the Military Officers Association of America. "(The Army) can't use this individual for the reason they have him, which is to deploy and fight, so, unfortunately, he's holding a spot for someone who could. He's trying to do the right thing — get off the rolls — and he can't."
Guard and Reserve members face special challenges when it comes to seeking compensation for disabling injuries, said retired Army Lt. Col. Mike Parker, another veterans advocate. Some simply aren't receiving the benefits to which they are entitled.
An Army Reserve spokesman last week apologized for the delays, which he blamed on a bureaucratic reorganization. He said a medical review board at Fort Leonard Wood would soon address Pyatt's case.
And the chief of staff of the Army's Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, Col. Allan Fey, on Friday ordered an investigation.
"He was mortified. This shouldn't happen to any soldier under any circumstance," said his spokesman Lt. Col. Gerald Ostlund. "Anything identified is going to be rectified. There's absolutely no excuse."
Pyatt grew up in St. Francois County and spent four years in the Navy before leaving the service to care for his ailing grandparents who had raised him.
In 2005, he enlisted in the Army Reserve and later that year deployed with the Jefferson Barracks-based 307th Tactical Psychological Operations Company to Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. He served on a three-man team that ventured into the turbulent city to meet with sheiks, distribute fliers or broadcast propaganda from loudspeakers.
"We were really the voice of the U.S. to the community," Pyatt said. "I loved it. Absolutely loved it."
He got hurt two months into his yearlong tour. He jammed his leg, heard a pop in his hip and fell to the ground.
A doctor ordered several days bed rest and put Pyatt on light duty for a month, but after a few weeks he grew restless.
"I told the doc, 'Look, I gotta get back out. I can't sit here anymore. I just can't do it.'" Pyatt said.
He also felt pressure. Another member of Pyatt's 13-man detachment had knee surgery before deployment. After a short time in Iraq, the soldier decided he couldn't continue. Pyatt said the sergeant in charge warned him not to leave the unit even more shorthanded.
"They just couldn't lose one of us. That was the pressure I felt."
Pyatt said the sergeant also told him he if he stuck it out he could expect a promotion.
"If you've ever been in the military, you know those sergeant's stripes are what you want," Pyatt said. "That's the big step." He dulled the pain with doctor-prescribed codeine, ibuprofen and muscle relaxers. He completed his tour, surviving five roadside bomb attacks and a divorce.
"It hurt so bad, but I did it. I got through it. You grin and bear, and that's what I did."
In May 2006, Pyatt returned from Iraq to Fort Bragg, N.C., for post-deployment evaluations.
Pyatt said both the sergeant and a lieutenant warned him to not mention his injuries. Mother's Day was a week away and Pyatt said his superiors feared the entire unit would be delayed getting home if Pyatt needed treatment.
On a form, Pyatt wrote that he was having problems with his back, arms, head and hip. But he told a medical worker he'd be fine.
"It's not unusual for soldiers not to report injuries fearing it could delay their return home and to their family," said Jaime Cavazos, an Army Medical Command spokesman in San Antonio. "We try to do whatever we can to fix their maladies, but a lot of it depends on their honesty and stepping forward and identifying that they have a problem. That's a big issue for us."
If Pyatt had been truthful, he would have received his monthly $2,300 active duty pay until his injuries had been treated or the military determined he was no longer fit for duty, a mistake that has cost him thousands of dollars.
Pyatt knew that he was entitled to six months of military-paid medical insurance. He figured he would get his injuries looked at in Missouri.
He also knew his military career was over.
'ALWAYS AN EXCUSE'
Once back at Jefferson Barracks, Pyatt asked for a medical discharge. A clerk repeatedly assured Pyatt she would file the forms but never did, he said.
Hayden, of the officers association, said bureaucratic breakdowns often occur when returning National Guard and Reserve members fail to report their injuries. Most of the military's expertise for processing injured service members resides within the active duty force, he said.
"When they step back to their (Guard and Reserve) units, that's when the ball gets dropped," Hayden said. "Those units are not always clear on the actual process that needs to take place."
Col. Fey also on Friday ordered an internal audit to identify any shortcomings in the procedures.
Pyatt used his short-term insurance for visits to Scott Air Force Base doctors. By the time they told him there was nothing more they could do, his insurance had run out.
He found a telephone call center job but forgot things. Walking, standing and bending all day left him in agony. He was let go.
He felt weak. His arms and legs ached. It took nearly an hour of stretches and massage to get out of bed. He ran warm water over his hands to release the clenched fists that developed in the night.
In February 2007, after a night where he woke several times screaming in pain, his wife demanded he go to the VA.
Over the next year, VA doctors diagnosed him with 25 ailments, including nerve damage in all four limbs, degenerative arthritis of the spine, four bulging discs, chronic fatigue, memory loss, depression and post-traumatic stress. Eventually, the VA declared Pyatt 100 percent disabled, all connected to his Iraq service.
Yet Pyatt's command had taken no action on his discharge request.
"There was always an excuse," said his wife, Shannon Pyatt.
On several occasions, Pyatt said commanders offered him an administrative discharge, an offer the couple considered insulting. It would have meant forfeiting any retirement benefits.
Refusing that offer may have been Pyatt's smartest move, said Parker, the veterans advocate. Thousands of injured Guard and Reserve veterans have agreed to administrative separations even though they are entitled to compensation, he said.
Parker blamed Guard and Reserve commanders who he said don't understand the military disability process and a Defense Department he believes is anxious to keep down costs related to the long-term care of thousands of disabled veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They either don't know the rules or realize how expensive it is to the (Defense Department) to do it right, so they do everything they can not to do it right," Parker said.
In July 2007, in the midst of his VA treatment, Pyatt was flabbergasted when his unit tried to send him back to Iraq.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he recalled a Fort Bragg doctor asking before declaring Pyatt unfit for deployment.
After almost a month at Fort Bragg, on the day he was to return to Missouri, Pyatt said another sergeant tried to convince him to sign a waiver to deploy despite his condition. Pyatt refused.
Back in Missouri, Pyatt was still expected to report for monthly drill. By then, he was taking about 12 pills a day, including morphine.
In January 2009, a VA doctor signed a letter saying Pyatt was incapable of performing drill or any other duties.
By then, the Army had transferred Pyatt on paper to the Reserve's 88th Regional Readiness Command at Fort Snelling, Minn., which was to continue his medical evaluation process. About the same time, the 88th was being restructured and some of its operations relocated. Walton, the spokesman for what is now the 88th Regional Support Command, said it appears Pyatt got lost in the shuffle.
"It's unfortunate, and we do apologize for the delay," Walton said. "Finally, the unit is doing the right things, which is a good thing for this guy."
'I DID MY JOB'
The couple survive on Pyatt's $2,932 monthly VA disability. Shannon Pyatt, 33, had to quit her job as a pastry chef to care for her husband.
Pyatt applied for Social Security disability payments in July 2007 but was denied.
Pyatt said the judge in his case did not allow him to call witnesses and made several mistakes in citing his medical records. They included claiming that Pyatt used a cane by choice, when in fact, the records included a doctor's order for it.
"To me it was almost like he had his medical records mixed up with another case," Shannon Pyatt said of the judge.
Social Security disability would have meant about $1,000 more each month, and about $41,000 in back payments.
Two days after Social Security denied his disability claim, Pyatt received a notice from another government agency, Medicare and Medicaid, declaring him totally and permanently disabled. That qualified him for Medicaid, but VA treatment was still cheaper.
"It was such a kick in the teeth," Shannon Pyatt said. "One agency was saying he was disabled and another was saying he wasn't."
Over the last three years, Shannon Pyatt's parents lent the couple $36,000 to help with expenses. Her father has since had several heart attacks, no longer is working and now is in default on his mortgage. The pressures are taking a toll on Pyatt.
"He's never asked anybody for anything and now my parents may lose their house because of him," Shannon Pyatt said. "That's how he looks at it."
If declared totally and permanently disabled by the military, Pyatt would immediately begin receiving his retirement pay of several hundred dollars a month. He and his family also could see private doctors and eliminate the 90-minute drives several times a month to the St. Louis VA.
Pyatt spends a lot of time on his front porch reading — mysteries, thrillers, books about the military. The scooter he uses to get around is broken.
His Honda motorcycle still sits out front. He shouldn't ride it, but on his best days he does. Not doing so makes him feel like he's giving up, something he refuses to do.
He feels the same way about getting disability benefits he believes are rightly his.
"I did my job and I did it well," he says of his military service. "What I want to say to the Army is no soldier should have to put up with what I've put up with. It's ridiculous."
Click to view image: '96c761c1cb66-4ca6afcedfceepreview300.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|