Sunday, July 20, 2008

Every Day Heroes

Meet Petty Officer 2nd Class Alan Dementer:

'Best time of my life, working with Marines'

Bronze Star with "V"
earned 3.26.03
while serving with
2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment

Life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this for Alan Dementer.

Less than four years ago, Petty Officer 2nd Class Dementer was being called a Navy hero. His friends and family watched with pride as he was pinned with a Bronze Star with a “V” device for his actions during the battle in Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 26, 2003, while serving as a corpsman with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

Dementer, a strapping six-footer who single-handedly lifted and carried wounded Marines in full combat gear to safety through hails of enemy fire, was credited with helping treat 31 Devil Dogs through that long night.

When a mortar hit near the corpsman, throwing him onto his back and spraying him with shrapnel, he was so focused, with so much adrenaline coursing through his veins, he barely registered the pain.

In the aftermath of “the Nas,” the physical wounds from the shrapnel that sliced Dementer through the shoulder and leg healed fast.

The mental wounds are taking longer. Like many servicemembers who survived that battle, one of the invasion’s bloodiest tests, he’s still struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

But there was yet another layer of wounds Dementer suffered that day, wounds that couldn’t be healed with stitches or counseling.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but when I got knocked on my keester, I got blast injury,” Dementer said in a telephone interview with Stripes from his home near Iron Mountain, Mich.

What Navy doctors later found, after countless tests, was that the blast damaged nerves in his spine, up near his neck. As Dementer scrambled to move his Marine charges to safety, he unknowingly aggravated the damage.

But even if he had realized it, Dementer told Stripes, he wouldn’t have done anything differently.

Those Marines were not only his responsibility — they were his friends.

“The best friends I ever had,” he said.

Friends he misses desperately since he was medically discharged from the Navy in 2004.

Soon after Nasiriyah, Dementer said, he started getting shooting, burning pain in his legs, hands and arms, which would then go numb. His back hurt badly, and “I couldn’t lift much of anything.”

Still, “I was in denial,” Dementer said. He kept hoping the symptoms would go away. He wanted to get better so he could be assigned with another Marine unit and get back to the combat zone.

“All I wanted to do was go back to the Fleet,” he said. “That was the best time of my life, working with Marines.”

Instead, after returning from Iraq, Dementer and his family were transferred to Great Lakes Naval Station, Ill., where he spent countless hours at the naval hospital, trying to find the source of the trouble.

At first, doctors diagnosed him with polyneuropathy, a chronic and severe nerve pain that affects all the limbs, usually caused by a traumatic event.

They later refined that to diagnosis degenerative nerve disease, which means that not only will Dementer’s condition not improve, “it’s just going to get slowly worse and worse,” said his wife, Jerri, who had joined the telephone conversation.

When he got the news of his forced retirement from the medical board in 2004, Dementer had 16 years in the service — four critical years short of the all-important 20-year mark he needed to qualify for retirement benefits.

Those four years also pushed Dementer into the “exceptions” category of the so-called “concurrent receipt” law Congress passed in 2003.

Before 2003, military retirees were not allowed to collect both their monthly retirement stipend and any disability payment they may have earned from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Military advocacy groups tried to get the law changed for years, saying the two payments were unrelated. But Congress kept refusing, saying it was too expensive to taxpayers, and “double-dipping” to boot.

Finally, as of Jan. 1, 2004, the law was changed so that retirees with disability ratings of higher than 50 percent are allowed to collect both payments.

But the law exempts servicemembers who have been retired for medical reasons with less than 20 years of service. Like Alan Dementer.

These members are not allowed to collect both their monthly medical retirement from the Defense Department and the VA stipend. It’s one or the other. Since the VA stipend is higher, that’s the payment servicemembers take.

This is an issue that is increasingly affecting servicemembers who are getting hurt in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

Alan and Jerri Dementer are raising three children on just his VA disability payment, which amounts to about $2,000 (fully taxable) a month, plus whatever Jerri can earn providing day care from their home.

“For us [not getting both payments] means a few hundred dollars a month,” Dementer said. “That money would mean a lot to us.”

By Lisa Burgess
Stars and Stripes

With gratitude for your service, Petty Officer 2nd Class Alan Dementer.

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