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Iraq vet, laid off by Army, says: 'I feel betrayed'

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of November 15, 2012)
Photo of Joshua Chapple

Joshua and Rebecca Chapple recently sold their wedding rings to buy food.

They also sold their television sets, their kids’ Playstation and X-Box, and a toy scooter they’d given their daughters last year as a Christmas present.

They’ve taken help from strangers, slept on the couches and floors of family members, and seriously considered living in their car, even though they were behind in payments and it was likely to be repossessed. They could not register Kaylee, 10, and Faith, 7, to start elementary school in August with the other kids because they had no address, so therefore, no proof of residency.

The young couple, he just 27 and she 30, are trying to rebuild their lives from scratch, but not after some drastic mistake or risky investment. The 2003 Vero Beach High School graduate got a pink slip in June from the United States Army after serving six years, including 15 months in Iraq.  The reason for his involuntary discharge:  layoffs due to budget cuts.

“This has been quite a hit to my pride,” Joshua said, as he relayed his nearly unbelievable story of being dumped back into civilian society with no job, no health or disability benefits and with injuries from his time in the Army.

“I’ve always been able to provide for my family. I’ve never had to ask anyone for help. I’ve never been in trouble and I’ve never caused any trouble. I got good conduct medals,” he said, as if still trying to answer the question why all these things have happened to him.

“I feel betrayed, but they can’t take away from what I’ve done for my country and what I’ve been through,” he said. “I’ve got to stay strong for the kids.”

After entering the Florida National Guard in 2005 and helping with the disaster recovery efforts following two hurricanes, Chapple enlisted in the regular Army to fulfill a promise he’d made to wife Rebecca.

“I told him if we were going to get married, that he had to have a plan,” she said.

The plan, Joshua said, was to become a soldier so he would have steady income and good benefits for his wife and daughters.

Being turned out into the streets after fighting a war for his country and re-enlisting for another six years was not part of that plan.

Neither was applying for Medicaid because they have no health or dental insurance.

Things are just beginning to turn around for the Chapples, but every step forward comes with a shaky step back.

After no income from the military since Joshua’s April paycheck before they left Ft. Hood , Texas, he’s finally getting $275 per week in unemployment benefits. But about the same time the long-awaited unemployment checks started to come in, Joshua found out from the military that not only would he not get paid his last month’s paycheck for May, but he was now in debt to Uncle Sam.

“I owe the Army money,” he said, half-chuckling with whatever shred of sense of humor he has left. “They notified me that they’re taking back the $9,000 bonus they offered me to re-enlist. The back pay they owed me was about $5,000 and they’re keeping that, so now I owe them $4,000.”

After months of processing paperwork, the Chapples just got a monthly allotment of $500 in food stamps for four people. They received a donated modular home in Sebastian and enough money to turn on the utilities and pay the first couple of months’ lot rent. Then Rebecca lost her waitress job at a local family-owned Italian restaurant.

The post-traumatic stress disorder that Joshua had pretty much under control at Ft. Hood has been exacerbated by the fact that the future is so murky and he feels helpless.

Weekly group sessions sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America on Tuesday nights at the Indian River Mall help some, he said, but his reality is still a harsh one. He went from being a Military Police Specialist training a police force in Iraq and setting up police stations to spending his days in Sebastian, looking for work and worrying about what to tell his daughters.

“Back in Ft. Hood, if they wanted $20 for the book fair, I gave them the $20 for the book fair,” Chapple said. “But now it’s different. I had to beg for money for my daughter to be able to go on a field trip so she wouldn’t feel left out. When we had to sell off all of that stuff and some of my daughters’ stuff, it’s very hard to explain to them why these things are going away.”

Chapple said he definitely wants to work. He also said Rebecca is looking and she’s willing to take most any kind of job, though she prefers restaurant work because the tips supply much-needed cash to meet the family’s unforeseen daily needs.

“I didn’t believe that it could be so tough to find a job,” he said. I thought for sure I could get on with one of the police departments or get some security work, but the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have any jobs open. I’ve just completed the paperwork to be able to do security.”

To earn a few bucks here and there to pay for essentials, Joshua takes odd jobs. One day he said he’ll be chopping down a tree or hauling mulch. The next day he’ll be painting. None of those activities is especially good for his torn rotator cuff. It’s been operated on, but he was relegated to desk duty before his involuntary discharge.

“They’re supposed to get you a disability rating before they let you out, but I was just forced out – quick, fast and in a hurry,” he said. “It’s the way they treat you when you get out, that’s been hard to deal with.”

Retired Air Force Col. Martin Zickert runs the Veterans Council of Indian River County, headquartered in Vero Beach. He was alerted to the Chapple’s predicament just in time.

Zickert found the funds to put the family up in a hotel, give them some gift cards for a hot meal and some groceries.

Through the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1038, he was able to help them catch up on auto loan payments to avoid repossession, and also to accept the donation of the three-bedroom home in Sebastian and have it deeded to Rebecca and Joshua Chapple.

Veterans groups in Sebastian have provided some small amounts of cash to help the family get by, but no major donations through their national assistance funds have yet to come through, Zickert said. There’s no real system, he said, to help the estimated 1.8 million new veterans under the age of 35, many of whom like Joshua Chapple, have spouses and young children.

“Bottom line is that the Chapples’ situation made us realize we were not prepared for the coming tsunami.  But we now know what it takes and will be implementing a community blueprint plan designed specifically for situations like this,” Zickert said.

Chapple said he feels local Vietnam veterans understand what it’s like to be foisted back into a society that’s not quite sure what to do with you.  Zickert said helping young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan assimilate back into civilian life is an important mission of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

“When the Vietnam vets returned home, our reception from the public and many of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion people was that we weren’t welcome,” Zickert said. “Because of that, the VVA motto is ‘Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another’.

“We intend to support the Chapple family and others until they are able to get back on their feet.  We are the safety net for veterans but we are not a hammock,” he said.

Part of helping veterans get what they need after they return home is giving them some direction with the volumes of forms they need to fill out. Chapple said it’s been daunting and discouraging. 

It’s taken months to locate and transfer his medical paperwork from Ft. Hood to the local Veterans Administration office and to  Chapple’s new doctors. He’s been evaluated by psychologists, and he met once with doctors in West Palm Beach. He’s grateful that he finally has the medication he needs for his PTSD.

“It’s still hard to sleep at night. I still think about it,” he said, referring to the lingering images of the horrors he witnessed in Iraq.

Chapple worked 110 miles outside the “green zone,” training Iraqi men to be the country’s new civilian police force. After spending months working with the Iraqis, many of them were killed, as the police were prime targets. He and his fellow MPs didn’t really make friends with the trainees. The language barrier made it very tough to really connect, he said. He only learned three words – stop, hello and good-bye – in the 15 months he was in country.

The carnage that bothers him the most is seeing several close friends die on the battlefields of Iraq, and knowing that many of the ones who survived are back in harm’s way, now in Afghanistan. Those guys, the ones who had his back in Iraq, are the veterans he said filled his mind and his heart on Veterans Day.

He also thought long and hard of the local Vietnam veterans who basically saved his life once he came home.

“We’ve been blessed with the people we meet, but the Vietnam Veterans Association can only do so much. We thank God every day,” he said. “And the house that we got donated for us, it’s really beautiful. Beach Cove is a nice quiet community. Everybody is a little older, but it’s a nice place where my daughters can ride their bikes.”

When he and Rebecca got moved in and had utility bills and an address to show the Indian River County School District, they enrolled his daughters in the second and fifth grades at Pelican Island Elementary School. Local veterans pitched in for their school uniforms and school supplies.

Chapple may not have a job or any earthly security to speak of, but he now has a home for his family and, he said, that’s a reason to be grateful. Despite all he’s been through, he tries to find the silver lining.

“I take my daughter fishing three times a week,” he said. “That’s something I definitely couldn’t do before.”