SC Marine wounded in Iraq still fighting - this time for benefits

ColumnistOctober 17, 2010 

Look at Brian Dunn, and you see the "USMC" tattoo across his arm, the Marine haircut and his flashing eyes when the talk is about bombers that he spent so long fighting and yes - killing - in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

Bombers that almost killed him, too.

"Once a Marine, always a Marine," says Dunn, like countless Marines have said because it is what Marines say, and it happens to be true - even when the Marine is not active anymore.

Dunn is fighting to get the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for artificial disc replacement surgery in Germany. Back surgery, he says, could give him a normal life again.

But that surgery is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so the VA will not pay for it.

Brian Dunn is medically retired and disabled. A roadside bomb blew up the Humvee in which he was the turret gunner on May 9, 2005. The bomb killed his best friend and knocked the Humvee on top of Dunn. He probably should be dead.

But he is alive. He survived compression fractures in his back, busted eardrums, a broken jaw, wounds to his legs, a torn rotator cuff. He has Marine Corps commendations and a Purple Heart, but his body and mind are not the same as they were before he went to Iraq.

Dunn has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from the bombing.

When he came back from Iraq, Dunn was just 22, wondering what he would do with the rest of his life. He had enlisted in the Corps straight out of high school. He had never done anything else. He never wanted to.

Dunn is fighting with the help of a Marine captain named Charlie Hall, who is originally from York.

Hall assists injured Marines in both Carolinas. The Iraq war veteran works out of Greenville as the injured support officer for the Wounded Warrior Regiment, an official Marine Corps unit created in 2004 to help wounded and sick Marines with health and social problems after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq showed that the need was there.

For Marines such as Dunn, Hall is a case manager and social worker.

He helps Marines who were trained as infantry - not paper pushers or insurance experts - maneuver through the system of post-Corps services that can be so tricky and so daunting.

The regiment has 30 officers like Hall around the country who meet face-to-face with Marines. There is a network of other support services, from medical teams to family support.

Although Marines make up just 10 percent of the fighting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 27 percent of the troops injured are Marines, and 23 percent of those killed were Marines, according to the Department of Defense.

More than 870 Marines have died, and almost 8,800 - like Dunn - have been wounded.

"Our job is to fill in the gaps, to help Marines just like Brian get the benefits and help that each of them has earned through their service to the Marine Corps and the country," Hall said. "We do not bash the VA. We do not bash anyone. What we do is help Marines get through it all."

Life after being wounded

Dunn was medically retired in 2006 after his injuries. He started work later that year with the U.S. Postal Service, even though he had what was determined as partial disability.

By the end of 2009, he had married Erica, and between the two of them, they had three children - and the pain from his back was too much to handle.

"Here I was, a Marine, and I am at my (postal) machine, and I started crying from the pain," Dunn said.

Since then, he has been unable to work and is home on the Family Medical Leave Act.

"The whole time has been a struggle for us as family," said Erica Dunn, "a tremendous trial to get through."

As if that weren't enough to deal with, on Thursday, this Marine who served his country and almost died for it had his power cut off for non-payment.

Dunn has asked the Social Security Administration for full disability status. His first request was denied because his disability is not seen as permanent, and he could do some kind of work.

Dealing with red tape, plus helping the family, is where Hall and the Wounded Warrior Regiment stepped in. The Marines found Dunn - he didn't have to go to them - and offered services.

"The Marine Corps has shown once again they look out for their own," Dunn said.

Since Dunn had to leave work, he has met several times with Hall. He went with Hall to VA meetings. Hall helped him gather materials to appeal the VA's decision not to pay for his back surgery and to appeal the denial of full disability.

Hall researched Dunn's military record and helped document the injuries and service accomplishments. Hall has helped deal with VA social workers and others in the system of medical and social civilian life for veterans.

"The VA is a very good system, but it is complicated," Hall said. "... What I do is vouch for Brian and show that all that he is asking for is legitimate."

The Marine Corps Semper Fi Fund has done more than vouch. The non-profit charity that helps Marines has given the Dunns almost $20,000 in the past year to help them keep their home mortgage paid and for other expenses.

The Semper Fi Fund helped to get the power back on this week.

"I keep saying it, but the Marines take care of each other," Dunn said. "The VA has been very good to me too, so far. Right now, we just disagree on what my treatment should be from here."

'A trailblazer for others'

Dunn wants to have specific surgery in Germany, where it is done, with artificial discs because he says it will offer better mobility.

"I want this surgery because I think it is the best available out there," Dunn said. "I want to be an active husband and father with the rest of my life."

Patricia Pittman, director of the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, told Dunn in a letter a few weeks ago that VA guidelines do not permit coverage of services that are outside the United States and outside accepted medical services of both the FDA and U.S. medical practices.

Dunn was told the VA will, "do everything possible to help you receive the best of care in the States."

He has appealed the decision.

The VA continues to assist Dunn but requests for the surgery were denied both at the Dorn hospital and at the VA regional office, spokesperson Priscilla Creamer at the Dorn hospital said.

The VA has offered other options to Dunn - including disc fusion surgery - but Dunn has not accepted those. Future appeals remain up to Dunn, Creamer said, and what happens from here is up to Dunn.

Further, she said, the VA does not send wounded veterans out of the country for services.

Yet Dunn said he plans to keep trying and appealing, even if it is to the top of the VA and the federal government.

"I just want to be a trailblazer for others," Dunn said. "Maybe me trying to get this will change something. I don't know."

Hall said his role with the Wounded Warrior group is to support Dunn in his appeals - efforts that could lead to better overall policies for wounded troops.

Dunn has TRICARE, medical insurance for military members and veterans, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield coverage from his postal job. Dunn could pay for the $50,000 back surgery himself and seek reimbursement from those carriers, Hall said, or they could hold a fundraiser.

"Brian could be what he called a trailblazer for others," Hall said. "If we raise the money, what about the next Marine? Brian has his head and heart in the right place. That Purple Heart he has means something.

"That's what leaders do. That is what Marines do. They lead."

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