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Toni Pirkl, Forum Communications Co., Published December 09 2009

Guard member losing everything since Iraq

JAMESTOWN, N.D. – When John Awender got back from Iraq with the North Dakota National Guard’s 817th Engineer Company in summer 2008, he hoped that since he wouldn’t be hauling around 60 to 80 pounds of gear his back would heal.

Instead, Awender’s back problems continued to plague him. He went back to work as a groundskeeper at Jamestown College in August 2008. And by March 2009 he couldn’t physically handle the job and had to quit.

“Being a groundskeeper at the college was the closest I could get to farming,” he said. “I loved the job.”

Awender said he fell while he was in Iraq and after that occurred going on missions was agony. His back took a beating from the equipment and bouncing around in a vehicle, he said. And a pinched nerve caused his leg to go numb. Then it would take him 24 hours to recover, he said.

During the year he spent in Iraq, Awender saw doctors about his back. Then on his return to the States he had medical testing done at Fort McCoy, Wis. Following an MRI, he was diagnosed with a degenerative disc, which means that even surgery is unlikely to fix it. Since then he’s been seeing Department of Veterans Affairs doctors, going through physical therapy and driving to Fargo for vocational rehabilitation.

“The VA doctor claimed me disabled back in March,” he said.

Awender said he has bad days and not-so-bad days physically. On the bad days the 43-year-old Guard member is bent over and shuffles along, more like a man twice his age. He tries to avoid taking pain pills, he said, as they make him groggy, but the pain is nearly constant. He can’t sit, stand or walk for very long and he doesn’t know what kind of work he could possibly be trained to do at this point.

Now Awender’s unit commander is in the process of giving the 16-year military veteran a medical discharge from the National Guard. Awender said that’s difficult to accept, but he knows he can no longer perform his duties. It was inevitable. Awender spent four years in the Army and Army Reserves before joining the Guard in Minot in 1998.

He said the Guard was going to be his retirement.

“The Guard waited as long as it could but I’m a hindrance to them now. I’m no longer deployable,” he said. “I would need a miracle to stay in.”

Although it’s painful to no longer be a part of the military, Awender’s woes are worse. He applied for permanent disability compensation through the VA and was denied.

“They say the degeneration of the disc is a pre-existing condition,” he said. “They say it’s not military-related, but I went through three months of training at McCoy before we went to Iraq. I passed all the physical training tests. I used to run before I went to Iraq, now I can’t walk easily up the stairs.”

Awender is appealing the decision, but it could take years. Meanwhile, what he and his wife, Angie, have achieved during 14 years of marriage is disappearing. John can no longer work and their savings is gone. Their house is now on the market because they can no longer afford it. The couple, who have two sons are on their way to losing everything they’ve worked for.

VA Public Affairs Officer Peggy Wheelden said she could not comment because of privacy regulations.

Toni Pirkl is a reporter at The Jamestown (N.D.) Sun, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.