SUNDAY, SEPT. 19, 2010

Finally, Army offers help to colonel

Col. Darel Maxfield vividly remembers the day a senior Army Reserve officer pulled the oak leaf off his chest and, with a flourish, replaced it with a proud eagle, the insignia of a full Army colonel.

Maxfield’s father, a World War II Army vet, had died just the year before. The older man affectionately ribbed his son, calling him “Ike” for his shaved head. “When are they going to give you your colonel, son?” he would ask.

As Maxfield stood at the ceremony, wishing his father had lived to see that day, tears sprang to his eyes. In the Army, promotion to “full-bird” colonel ranks as a high honor.

Lately, the Spokane man’s been wondering, though, if that rank had any real meaning anymore, and whether his Army had abandoned him. He has served, first active, then reserve, for a total of 28 years in that fine institution. It sent him to a 15-month harrowing tour of duty in Iraq, and last year was preparing to send him overseas again.

On Aug. 14, 2009, Maxfield and his wife, Lesley, set out for a trip to Vancouver, Wash., for an Army Reserve training he would lead. They’d packed the night before. Around 2 a.m., Maxfield awoke with what seemed to be the symptoms of a bad stomach flu. So, just before dawn, groggy but determined to travel, Maxfield got into the car. His wife took the wheel first.

As they headed south from the Country Homes area down Monroe Street, Lesley Maxfield realized something was seriously wrong. He told her he was so dizzy he couldn’t see. He felt numbness. She quickly turned left on Central Avenue to head to Providence Holy Family Hospital.

That first day at the hospital she called his unit’s executive officer to report he’d been diagnosed with a stroke. His right side was numb, his speech and balance were damaged, and he was admitted to the hospital.

That phone call was the first step in an Army process that by last week had stretched into its 14th month, with no end in sight. A line-of-duty investigation (LOD) began in order to determine whether the stroke occurred on Army time, a clock that starts ticking when a reserve soldier travels to a weekend drill. If so, Maxfield could receive incapacitation pay and medical care from the Army. His veterans disability benefits would likely reflect the outcome.

“For a reservist or a guardsman, an LOD is worth its weight in gold,” said Adrian Wall, a service officer for a local veterans organization.

Maxfield recalled filing similar paperwork for four guys under his own command. He remembered having a strict 45-day deadline and that the Army prided itself on taking care of its own. So why in hell was it taking more than 13 months?

As a reservist, 53-year-old Maxfield has also pursued a career as a social studies teacher at Ferris High School. Last year, he was too disabled to teach. It was the sick leave donated by fellow teachers, secretaries and even custodians at Spokane Public Schools that carried him through.

But by this summer, Maxfield’s savings ran out. His school paycheck stopped. He and his wife gave up eating in restaurants. He dropped his subscription to Sports Illustrated. He stopped the therapy for his stroke.

Maxfield’s spirits fell. He felt depressed, and he ruminated on the violent episodes of his time in Iraq. A psychiatrist who treats him for post-traumatic stress disorder pushed him to try to teach half time this fall. Lesley Maxfield did, too.

And so in August, Maxfield returned to Ferris. He can’t drive so he takes a bus or catches a ride. He teaches three classes in the morning, and then, exhausted and limping, he heads home to take a nap.

Getting back in the classroom improved his mood. His right side is still numb, but the kids are sweet and forgiving of the way he stammers now when he can’t find the right words. His colleagues parry black humor about his ordeal with the LOD investigation. “Darel’s Army Held Hostage: Day 390,” a friend joked.

Inconceivably, despite Maxfield’s long service and considerable sacrifice, neither the Army Reserve nor the Department of Veterans Affairs had come to his aid. The VA sends him letters every 60 days saying it’s still considering his claim.

As for the LOD case, it appeared to get lost in a reorganization of the Army Reserve. Regional support commands were consolidated, and the paperwork seemed to disappear. In March an investigating officer reported that he found the stroke “not in the line of duty.” Maxfield appealed. A more senior investigator interviewed both Darel and Lesley Maxfield, examined the medical documents and took testimony from Maxfield’s colleagues. His report in May concluded that the stroke indeed fell in the line of duty.

And then the process appeared to shut down. (“Maybe I inadvertently whizzed on someone’s shoes, and this is their way of whizzing back,” Maxfield mused last week.)

Maxfield appealed to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office in July, to no avail.

On Sept. 9, I called Maj. Gen. Eldon P. Regua of the 75th Battle Command Training Division in Houston. He said it was unfortunate that the process was taking so long but that he would have to refer me to the 63rd Regional Support Command at Moffett Field, Calif. They’d have to help me.

And then began a confounding runaround mirroring, in some small measure, Maxfield’s own experience these last 13 months. I called the 63rd in California. Maxfield wasn’t their soldier, they said. I was referred to a public affairs officer in the 88th Regional Support Command in Fort McCoy, Wis. As the days went by in a flurry of e-mails and telephone calls, the 88th referred me back to the 63rd, which referred me back to where I started, the 75th in Houston.

On Thursday, Maj. Mark Williford, a public affairs officer for the 75th, arranged for a conference call with the division’s chief legal officer. It was up to the 63rd to resolve the issue, the attorney said. “It’s got their attention now.”

Friday morning, Maxfield got a call at Ferris High School. It was now 400 days after the stroke. An officer informed him that at last the Army had made a final determination in his case. His stroke was officially found to be in the line of duty.

On Friday afternoon, Maxfield said he believes the Army will help cover his medical care and the cost of his co-pays for the seven prescription drugs he takes. He hopes he will also receive Army incapacitation pay.

He was certain that the Army sped up the process because they received calls from a journalist. “In a few short days you were able to accomplish what I could not in over a year,” he said.

I thought again about a question a sympathetic public affairs officer had asked me earlier in the week about this protracted delay, sounding incredulous: Was Maxfield actually a full eagle-bearing colonel?

Maxfield figured he knew what that officer was thinking, but could not say:

“If we did this to a full bird, holy crap, what happens to a Sgt. Nobody?”

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her e-mail address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net.

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