By: Edan Schultz
April 13, 2015
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- There's a new plan to help the most seriously injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans recover.
North Florida congresswoman Gwen Graham wants to put more resources into a Veterans Administration program that transitions those wounded warriors from military to civilian life.
The VETS Act -- Veterans, Education, Training Act -- would require the Veterans Administration to work with existing nursing schools to create a curriculum to train veteran recovery coordinators.
It would also authorize the VA to increase the number of coordinators.
And it would require the secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs to better coordinate the recovery program.
Retired Marine John Hayes says it's "desperately needed."
Hayes was severely wounded from an IED explosion in December 2010 while serving in Afghanistan.
"I remember my buddies wrenching on me with tourniquets, the helicopter coming down," Hayes recalled about the day his life changed dramatically.
He lost his legs, shattered his right arm, and early on was in such bad shape he didn't even realize what had happened.
"Every day I would wake up and tell my wife to take my boots off, and she would have to explain to me every day probably for about a month that I lost my legs," he remembers.
He underwent 65 surgeries while spending years recovering, but is now living happily in St. Augustine, Florida, with his wife and three daughters.
He gives a lot of credit to the VA and its program that provides him with a case manager to help with his transition and recovery needs.
"I definitely couldn't do it on my own. I'm a pretty tough guy but not strong enough to do on my own," Hayes said.
John calls his case manager, Paul Crouch, a pitbull.
"If I didn't have Paul in my corner, several times I would have just given up, gotten frustrated," said Hayes.
Crouch has been working at the VA for 14 years.
Early on, the North Florida and South Georgia region he served had only 80 post 9/11 veterans.
Now there are more than 25,000.
He works with about 80 who have severe physical and/or mental injuries.
"I love my job because I can make a difference. Pretty much every day I work with a veteran to try to get a solution to a problem and it's good, they feel good and I feel good," said Crouch.
Rep. Graham's legislation would provide training and resources to add more staff like Paul, helping seriously wounded post-9/11 vets move from military to civilian life.
John says having a one-on-one relationship with someone inside the VA is critical for him.
"To get an actual person that calls you back that day that cares about you and your interest, is huge," said Hayes.
Paul works out of Gainesville and covers a region as far west as Chipley, Florida, as far south as The Villages, and as far north as Georgia. His region includes the Tallahassee clinic.
He applauds the idea of more staff like him to provide veterans' recovery support closer to home.
"Someone they can walk to in their own clinic, walk down the hall knock on somebody's door and get what they need," said Crouch.
John says the VA has done its job keeping him going.
But he worries about other veterans who might fall through the cracks
"It's desperately needed because without that one-on-one people get frustrated, give up, when they're already stressed, and they expect so much from the VA."
"The VA's recovery coordinators are doing important work helping our nations' most seriously injured veterans," Rep. Graham said.
"I'm working with the Armed Services and Veterans committees in the House to pass the VETS Act, so we can train and hire more recovery coordinators in North Florida."
Recently, Rep. Graham questioned Defense Secretary Ashton Carter regarding the VETS Act.
Secretary Carter told Graham " I think there's more that we can do and that we should do to smooth that transition and prepare them for the life ahead."