Richard Crawford is mad as hell.
The Purple Heart recipient has post-traumatic stress disorder and wrestles with anger every day, sometimes breaking dishes in fits of rage.
The war-borne condition, coupled with traumatic brain damage, gout, and lingering complications from broken feet in the service, make him unemployable. He lives on 100 percent disability.
Not all of his anger is unwarranted. Today he faces the prospect of homelessness, brought on by the very agency pledged to help those soldiers wounded physically, mentally, and emotionally — the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In February, Crawford received a bill from the VA for $8,100.
The agency said it had overpaid him over the past five years and now wanted the cash back in a lump sum.
The dispute rises from Crawford’s divorce. He has the paperwork to prove he alerted the VA when his marriage ended, but the agency never updated its records and kept his wages the same.
“I’m trying to be positive,” he said. “I’m just waiting for next month to see what they’re going to do.”
The VA is expected to decide by April 1 whether to extend a year-long repayment schedule to Crawford. “I say that’s not acceptable. You made this mistake over five years, they can take it over five years,” he told us.
With barely a penny to his name, he can’t afford to pay back $8,100 at once. Even $800 per month would wipe out almost all of his income from government assistance.
“I’ve already told my landlord that if they take the money, I won’t be able to pay my rent,” Crawford said. “They’ll have to take me to court to evict me. I’m not going to live on the street after I served my country.”
Before entering the military, Crawford attended the Amherst Schools and the Lorain County JVS, graduating in 1999 from Steele High.
Now he lives in Lorain and said he cannot face the shame of asking his parents, who live in Vermilion, for help.
His father, Dennis Crawford, said the family is willing but he understands how his son, 37, has pride on the line.
The younger Crawford doesn’t like asking for help and is bitter at his experiences with the VA. He wants a public apology but the federal department won’t admit it is in the wrong, he said.
Lately he hasn’t been able to even reach anyone at the VA. The last several times he’s tried, Crawford has been greeted with a recorded message saying there aren’t enough employees to take calls and suggesting he write a letter instead.
The VA does not comment on individual cases.
It’s rare to hear someone say — we never have before — that they felt “relatively safe” being blown up.
Three years after graduating from Steele, Crawford enlisted in the Army as a medic, dreaming of one day working as a paramedic and firefighter. He was sent to Iraq during the “War on Terror” and given the least likely job to ever qualify as “relatively safe.”
Eight times, Crawford was hit by explosives.
And he did it on purpose.
A favored tactic among Iraqi insurgents was ambush, often by disguised roadside explosives, Molotov cocktails, or rocket fire.
And so the Army used bait to draw them out. Namely, they used Crawford.
He was part of a small two- or three-vehicle recon unit sent out to draw fire, and by doing so drawing out the enemy. In total, he was “blown up” eight times, suffering an unfair share of bumps, bruises, superficial burns, and concussions.
The worst came Dec. 13, 2005, near Mosul, when a 107mm rocket flared toward Crawford and engulfed his Hummer in flames.
He was burned from head to toe and shrapnel dug into his arm. Yet Crawford crawled to help his injured comrades, treating five other soldiers with shrapnel wounds.
His platoon sergeant died in the attack.
“As we drive back to the base, we came under fire and we started fighting by returning fire because we had to go back through the ambush,” he told us back in 2009.
Life wasn’t easy after returning to the U.S.
His marriage of eight years fell apart and his divorce was finalized on his eighth wedding anniversary. At first his wife had understood his PTSD but she couldn’t live with the everyday toll on their relationship, he said: “I wasn’t the same person she married.”
Crawford found himself homeless twice after losing jobs and ended up sleep on friends’ couches or in his car. Three years ago, a “friend” stole his rent money, then a burglar broke into his moving truck and took everything — his Purple Heart, photos, clothes, and shoes.
“I begged the VA to help me. They did absolutely nothing. No one did.”
LIVING WITH PTSD
There’s never a day when Crawford feels “normal.” The last time he felt remotely normal was before he left for the service at age 21.
In the past decade, his PTSD has shifted and changed. It manifests now in uncontrollable anger and anxiety.
“I’m a very nonviolent person, I’m not doing anything terrible, but that’s what my fear is,” he said. “I’m afraid I’ll hurt someone… I don’t really feel other emotions anymore.”
There’s also crippling shame.
Crawford has grown his hair out long. “I’m trying to hide my face,” he said, almost off-handedly, then realizing what that represented. “I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed for people to see me. I’m ashamed to be a veteran.”
If he could afford a passport to leave the country, he would, said Crawford, anger flaring up over the way he feels he’s been treated by the VA. “That’s why I’m doing this. I don’t want anyone to give me $8,000. I want people to know how veterans are being treated.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
The Wounded Warrior Project has been helping him but there’s a limit to what the organization can do, and a limit to what Crawford said he’s willing to do. He won’t ask for a hand-out and he won’t disclose too much information that he feels is personal.
And no lawyer — he said he’s called hundreds — is willing to take on the VA, even though Crawford feels he has a good case against the agency.
There is some good news, though.
Next month, Crawford will head to Malibu, Calif., for PTSD and anger management treatment through the Save a Warrior program. “That’s what’s keeping me down,” he said of his anger.
And Crawford does foresee a bright day when he’ll be able to conquer his inner demons, seek therapy, and return to work.
“But that time isn’t right now. I am not ready,” he said. “I am not ready.”
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.