August 6, 2011 in Opinion

Jamie Tobias Neely: Red tape isn’t daunting vet

Jamie TobiasNeely
 

Col. Darel Maxfield checked the actuarial tables for guys like him recently and concluded that if he’s lucky and God’s mercy is great, he might have another 10 or 12 years to live. The 54-year-old Iraq war veteran expects his life will end in another stroke.

In the meantime, he relishes each golden experience: his son’s wedding last weekend, a lunch invitation from an old student, and an exhilarating July morning when an Army Reserve friend flew in from Portland to present him with a Legion of Merit medal for 10 years of outstanding military service.

His growing acceptance of life’s finiteness helps mitigate the frustration of his two-year battle to conclude his Army Reserve career with a medical retirement. It was in August 2009 that he experienced a stroke while on his way to a training weekend.

An Army regulation, Maxfield says, sets a 90-day deadline for these determinations. As of this week, the review process for his retirement had stretched to 730 days. This summer, staff members at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, Ga., are evaluating his case once again. In the meantime, he remains in limbo, receiving some help from the VA, but no salary, medical benefits or retirement pay from the Army.

“There are times I get really angry and times I get really gladdened,” Maxfield says.

During the award presentation in Maxfield’s backyard on July 15, Lt. Col. Arnold Strong told the story of joining Maxfield’s team in 2008.

That November, Maxfield assigned his new staff to read Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” about the ultimate goal of love, the significance of finding life’s purpose, and the freedom, even in suffering, of choosing one’s attitude.

But Strong jokes that just before the holiday season he and his teammates were struck by the first sentence of the book’s preface, which describes Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, sometimes asking his patients, “Why do you not commit suicide?”

“Hey, sir,” the team members quipped, “great way to put us in the Christmas spirit.”

Maxfield was awarded the Legion of Merit for being one of the longest-serving battalion commanders in the 104th Division, for providing distinguished leadership at the Iraqi National Training Center and for organizing a new team to support units deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He’s an extraordinary guy, a really inspiring leader,” Strong says.

This summer, Maxfield’s also experiencing a melancholy sense of closure. He says he has worn his uniform for the last time. He decided to retire as a social studies teacher at Ferris High School. The stroke impaired his speech and his stamina. The family will get by on his wife’s teaching salary, he says, but his Army retirement pay would certainly make life easier.

Maxfield’s story highlights a poignant aspect of the country’s two wars. The Guard and Reserve have been asked to carry an extraordinarily heavy wartime load. Combined, they have more than 1.1 million service members, according to the office of the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. This group makes up 43 percent of the total U.S. forces, yet its cost amounts to only 9 percent of the total defense budget. Tragically, suicide rates among Army Guard and Reserve soldiers doubled last year.

Craig Weddle, a recently retired chief master sergeant in the Washington Air National Guard, sent me an email after a recent column about Maxfield. The Defense Department treats Guard and Reserve soldiers as “second-class service members,” he wrote, denying them the benefits and recognition of active-duty personnel.

“… If Col. Maxfield had been a regular Army member, sitting on a beach, sipping a cool drink, on leave in Tahiti and suffered his stroke, he would probably be retired with the appropriate pay and benefits without much more effort than the routine paperwork to accomplish it,” Weddle wrote.

Yet in a move Frankl would approve, Maxfield has found a new purpose: volunteering to serve as operations officer with Spokane’s new Veterans Court. That project is designed to give troubled young vets the counseling, training and mentoring they need to transform criminal offenses into new lives.

Spokane’s Veterans Court is patterned after one that started in Buffalo, N.Y. “Give me time, Jamie,” Maxfield says. “We’ll be the best in the country.”

This summer, Maxfield describes his life as rich. “I’m broken. Got it. But I have so much.”

On his gratitude list: Receiving that prestigious Legion of Merit medal (“the highest award the Army can give you without getting shot at”), traveling the globe, meeting hundreds of wonderful people, having the chance to serve in the Army he loves, and living long enough to celebrate his son Daniel’s wedding day.

“That’s one of the great challenges of life: focusing on what you have rather than what you don’t have,” Maxfield says. “If the Army never gives me another dime, I’m going to die a happy man.”

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, serves as an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. She may be reached at jamietobiasneely@comcast.net.

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