May 20, 2007 – MALTA, New York — Mark Gansky graduated from Watervliet High School in 2003 at 197 pounds with 3 percent body fat. The clean-cut kid used to jog three miles almost daily while carrying a 75-pound vest. He joined the Marine Corps that September, fulfilling an uncle’s early prediction.
“I was a monster, and I was all in shape,” Gansky said.
But four years later, he’s immobilized and unemployed, living in a Saratoga County apartment he shares with his fiance, Amanda Stenzel-Stamer, 22, and their 3-year-old daughter, Zoe-Jane Cruz.
Gansky wasn’t wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. The 21-year-old former wrestler was injured by a different kind of “friendly fire” — the U.S. military’s health care system — from what he calls a faulty medical operation. He’s finding it hard to get back on his feet.
His ongoing 20-month plight typifies how it’s become harder for disabled and wounded vets to find timely care and benefits. The normal red tape has been stretched because of a backlog of claims, many from veterans of new wars, a federal funding freeze and staff shortages.
Searching for help
The Bethlehem native was sent to Okinawa in March 2004 as an ammunition technician. He was helping clean up the Marine base there on Sept. 28, 2005, when he felt a twist in his torso that resulted in a big lump — a hernia.
During an operation that night, a Navy doctor on the Okinawa base struck two nerves in his right groin, Gansky said. The surgeon made a last-minute decision to remove a lymph node in the groin, and by nicking the nerves, caused a painful condition called neuropathy, he said.
The operation forced Gansky into a medical discharge. Since then, the former corporal traveled from military medical facilities in Japan to medical specialists across the United States. No one’s been able to repair the damage, he said.
Gansky, who returned to the Capital Region in August 2006, can no longer work, exercise or concentrate. He can’t bowl, or even wear blue jeans. Gansky, who takes prescribed pain killers, has gained 40 pounds and has lost his confidence.
“I’m not who I was,” Gansky said recently, sitting on his couch in a T-shirt, sneakers and sweat pants for comfort. His medical history is documented in hundreds of records he keeps in his Ballston Lake apartment.
Among the paperwork is Gansky’s application for disability benefits he submitted to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Manhattan in September to compensate for lost wages. Veterans’ disability claims are handled through VA regional offices, which are separate from VA hospitals that provide health care.
Eight months later, there’s been no decision on his claim and he has no reason to think one is coming soon. As do many veterans, Gansky must wait longer for benefits.
Crunch at the VA
Since 2003, the VA’s claims system has become increasingly strained under a large and unexpected increase in disability filings from Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, and flat federal funding for hiring processors, a March study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says.
Other factors, like expanded eligibility for claims and an aging federal work force, also have led to a backlog of benefit requests. Pending claims jumped 40 percent between 2000 and 2006, government figures show.
In New York, in general, continuing Iraq casualties have lengthened claims processing, said Gerry Ladouceur, a veterans counselor at the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany.
Ladouceur agreed to share findings recently disclosed by the VA’s claims office in Manhattan, whose representatives did not respond to requests for an interview.
Ladouceur said a veteran’s disability claim before 2000 generally took no more than four months to wind its way through the system, and often just weeks. It now takes an average of 287 days, and longer for those who weren’t wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, he said.
The Manhattan VA office employs more than 100 claims processors, but in the last year, 44 have retired, each with more than 30 years’ experience, Ladouceur said.
The VA hired 28 replacements with no experience, who require years of training, he said. President Bush has requested more than 450 new full-time claims processors for the VA in his fiscal 2008 budget, the GAO says. But even a well-funded program in New York would need at least a year to get new employees up to speed and get claims moving, Ladouceur said.
“Time is really the biggest thing for these vets, especially the ones living with no income,” he said. “They’re panicked. These are guys with jobs and families who were productive members of society, but now they can’t work because of their service to their country.”
Estimates by the GAO and VA on how long it takes to get a disability claim decision are low, said Matthew Tully, a Colonie lawyer who specializes in VA issues and who served in Iraq with the New York Army National Guard. He said some New York vets are waiting 12 to 18 months.
Wounded veterans must endure a grueling series of interviews, medical checkups and paperwork before finding out if they qualify for benefits, Tully said.
“It goes without saying there’s a crisis,” Tully said, but he stressed that the VA’s main troubles were in its claims bureaus, not in its hospitals.
‘Pain is so long’
But that hasn’t been Gansky’s experience; he blames military doctors for his nerve disorder and the VA for not healing the problem.
Gansky said after the 2005 operation, Navy doctors prescribed six months of Percocet to dull his pain, and his commanding officer placed him in a very limited office job. But for a kid like Gansky, who never drank alcohol in his life, the medication was overwhelming and, he says, accomplished little.
He was sent to military doctors in California in March 2006. They tried nerve injections and shot radio frequencies into his groin to deaden the injured nerves. The procedures failed, and the discomfort returned.
Neither the VA nor the Navy publicly discuss individual medical cases, and both declined comment.
“The pain is so long, just there,” Gansky says. “Nothing I do makes it go away. It feels like squeezing, pulsing, cramped.”
By the summer of 2006, Gansky returned to Japan a disgusted man. He agreed to a medical discharge and came back to upstate New York.
But Gansky has yet to find the recuperative surgery he seeks.
In November, doctors at the Stratton VA Medical Center replaced a mesh bandage inside of him, Gansky said. He and his family are sick of Band-Aid approaches. They want a solution.
“You just can’t fix it with pills and shots,” Gansky said.
He last visited Stratton on May 2. He said doctors told him there is too much scar tissue in his groin to operate again right now, and they prescribed a painkiller called Ultram and sleep medication that he’s taking.
Gansky and Stenzel-Stamer are getting married next month. The wait for his disability benefits has been devastating for the family, which, like most young couples, is facing cost of living increases.
Stenzel-Stamer works overtime, 10 to 20 hours a week, at a center for disabled people. Gansky tried work as a telemarketer, but sitting in one place and occasionally getting up to signal a supervisor made it impossible for him to continue. Suing the military is out of the question because he signed waivers prior to his initial surgery on Okinawa.
“I can’t believe people are being sent to war all the time, and they love them when they are at war, but when they come home, they don’t care about them anymore,” Stenzel-Stamer said.
Gansky doesn’t regret joining the Marines Corps, but he looks to the future with a heavy dose of uncertainty.
“My plan, my goal, was to get out of the Marines, finish college and start my own gym, be a personal trainer,” Gansky said, sitting on his couch. “As of now, that’s done.”
Dennis Yusko can be reached at 581-8438 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.