By: Sandi Argo, October 16, 2015
When Chris Koontz decided to join the military back in 1986, it was a decision that he made without hesitation. Then 19, Koontz felt that it was a calling. Having served as a reserve for a year enlisting in 1987 he knew that going “active” was where he was meant to be. It came as a disappointment, 9 years of service later, when he made the gut wrenching decision to hang up his military boots. Koontz had been forced by injuries to his back, knees and ears over the years to give up the career he loved. Unable to function at a normal pace, Koontz left the military, only to find the next battle he would face would be against the very entity he loved. The United States government.
Koontz left the Army in 1994. Like so many people, he looked to find his spot in the world and trusted that the government would do what they had promised and help out with the medical issues that he accrued during the 9 years he dedicated to them. Part of his military job was to lift heavy generators and batteries used by the military. And, like countless others, Koontz did his job without question of the toll the physical demands would have on his body. It began with an injury to his back. Not unlike any other typical 18 year old, Koontz had the “suck it up” approach and carried on. The troublesome back continued to get worse over time, along with knee problems and a loss of hearing (due to the excessive noise from the heavy equipment he worked with each day). Finally seeking medical help in 2005, Koontz hit one roadblock after another, a trend that has not stopped in over 10 years he has dealt with the problems.
The VA says that the physical issues were “pre existing” prior to his enlisting, although they have no explanation as to how Koontz easily passed the MEPS tests that the military requires, not just once but 3 times. “This test isn’t just a walk in the park” Koontz says “They test you in every physical way they can. You have to fit their mold. If there’s one little thing not to their standards, you are out”. With that being the case, the question is how a “pre existing” condition did not keep Koontz out. Even civilian doctors have linked the health issues to the duties performed in service, and now question the reasoning the military did not perform a common “exit physical” on Koontz as he left the Army. Koontz also says the VA has given several reasons throughout the years as to the denial of benefits. One being (according to the VA doctors) the absence of a diagnosis of “Radiculopathy” a set of conditions in which one or more nerves are affected and do not work properly (a neuropathy), although the term has been used in Koontz’ records.
After having pursued nothing more than medical treatment for the past 10 years, Koontz has discovered that his issues are not unlike countless others dealing with the VA. Koontz has learned that finding the right person to help is like buying a winning lottery ticket, it CAN happen…but usually won’t. On a recent trip to the Dallas VA, Koontz met a veteran that overheard the troubles that Koontz was having and felt a connection with Koontz, and started up a conversation. During their visit, the veteran told Koontz that he had been fighting the battle for healthcare that he had earned from fighting in Vietnam, being denied benefits that would give him care against the effects of the Agent Orange that the United States government used in that war. 45 years later, the veteran was still unable to get the treatment he needed. Koontz said “We aren’t asking for anything but fair benefits that we earned. Benefits that we were promised when we signed on”. Benefits they desperately need.
Koontz is unsure about the future. With the help of his girlfriend, Holly Firestone, Koontz has sent over 35 letters to politicians such as Donald Trump, Ben Carson and President Obama in hopes that someone will take a special interest in his dilemma. Koontz has suffered falls, and back in September he dealt with heart issues that the doctors believe are directly related to the stress of his situation. Having no feeling in one foot, and losing it in the other along with a loss of over 30% of his muscle in his legs, as well as the heart issues, Koontz is hoping to get treatment that he needs before it is too late.
Now requiring the use of a cane, full time, Koontz looks back to the time, not long ago, when living a normal life was more than just a memory. “I used to go dancing, walking, you know…normal things, like everyone else. All I wanted was to serve my country” Koontz says. And he did. Now it’s time for the country to make things right for Koontz and the others like him and give them the treatments and care they earned while serving. It’s fair, it’s just and it is the right thing to do.