Wednesday, July 8, 2009

LANSING ARTICLE: Family battles VA to get aid for ailing Gulf War vet

Written by John Schneider • Lansing State Journal • July 8, 2009

(Lansing, Mich.) The war chemicals and vaccinations Stephanie Harrist endured in Desert Storm, during the first Gulf War, may or may not have caused, or contributed to, her multiple sclerosis.

Harrist's stepmother, Karen Dunckel of Lansing, said Harrist's doctors have suggested a link. It's unlikely, it will ever be proven, one way or the other, she said.

But there is no disputing the fact that Harrist, a 39-year-old veteran of the U.S. Army, served her country for 10 years. For that alone, her family members argue, she deserves better treatment than she's getting from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It's very frustrating," Dunckel said. "These are the people who fight for our freedom. You hear about them being ignored (by the VA) when they come home. I'm living it."

In a nursing home

Harrist's disease has progressed to the point where she can't walk, feed herself or speak. Since December, she's been in a nursing home in Lowell, east of Grand Rapids.

Harrist's birth mother, Bath resident Brenda Bartkowiak, recently left me a voice-mail message pleading for intervention on behalf of her daughter.

The issue: a wheelchair.

Harrist has one, but it's useless to her because it doesn't provide the support she needs to remain upright in the chair.

"She slides off to the side and bumps her head," Bartkowiak said. "She can't hold her body up."

Approved - in theory

On April 15, after the standard period of bureaucratic delay, the VA authorized a customized rebuilding of the chair to suit Harrist's needs.

But that's where it ended - with an authorization and a promise.

Bartkowiak and Dunckel tell me they they've had dozens of conversations with the folks at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center. They hear about parts on order. They hear about somebody vital to the process being on vacation, or out sick or "dropping the ball."

"I think one department crosses the T's and another department dots the I's and they just can't get together," Bartkowiak said.

Meanwhile, Harrist is pretty much confined to a stationary reclining chair in her room at the nursing home.

My calls to the Battle Creek VA eventually led me to Public Affairs Officer Todd Greenman, who said privacy rules prevented him from discussing the particulars of Harrist's case. However, Greenman added: "We are looking into it. It will receive the appropriate attention."

Bartkowiak and Dunckel said they've heard that before - many times. But nothing ever happens.

"I'm afraid they're just waiting for her to die," Bartkowiak said.

Call John Schneider at 377-1175, send a fax to 377-1298 or e-mail
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