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Wednesday, Jul 18, 2018
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Howard Altman: Long fight for benefits pays off for St. Petersburg veteran with PTSD

Peter Nolan, a combat-wounded Marine veteran from St. Petersburg, was reading a Navy memo last week about his ongoing battle for benefits and his eyes filled with tears.

The five-page memo concluded that Nolan, 39, was the victim of an "injustice" when he was kicked out of the Marines last year with no retirement benefits despite more than 18 years of service and a history of injuries during his time in uniform.

The Navy’s Board for Correction of Military Records ordered Nolan moved from his status as medically separated with no retirement benefits to the Temporary Disability Retirement List. The board also ordered that Nolan be given 70 percent of his benefits dating to Feb. 1, 2017. The reason: He suffers from service-connected post traumatic stress disorder.

Nolan hasn’t been able to find work since leaving the Marines and had considered suicide during his struggles. The ruling marks a turnaround in fortunes, although it may be a temporary one. He now must undergo evaluation by the same group that denied him his request in the first place.

"It was definitely a humbling experience, full of mixed emotions," said Nolan, who left the Marines as a gunnery sergeant and served his final 10 years in active reserve with the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion on Gandy Boulevard.

Nolan’s history of injuries dates back to 2003, when he fell victim to an improvised explosive device in Iraq. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, aggravated later by recollections abut his combat experiences. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

A later deployment to Africa exposed him to dead bodies, further aggravating his condition. He also suffered a spinal injury, knee and shoulder problems, and stomach and hearing issues and turned to alcohol to cope with his problems.

By 2014, Nolan’s mental and physical struggles led him to seek help and he quickly became mired in the Navy’s medical bureaucracy.

His ordeal actually grew more difficult because he functioned well despite his problems, earning an assessment as "a highly qualified Marine," according to the Navy board’s memo.

In May 2014, he was hospitalized after reporting symptoms he thought were related to his brain injury. He stayed for three months, suffering from PTSD. A year later, he was hospitalized again for mental health issues and required back surgery among other treatments.

In the following years, he went before Marine physical evaluation boards. One found him fit for duty, while another, and his command, found otherwise. Meantime, the Department of Veterans Affairs proposed a temporary disability rating of 100 percent.

He was ultimately found fit for service and appealed, but he was denied and discharged from active duty Feb. 1, 2017. He received no severance pay and no retirement benefits. The decision also ended his temporary VA rating.

But Nolan says that thanks to the intervention of the Whistleblower Law Firm, which took his case for free in October 2016, and U.S. Rep Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, he landed a place on the Navy’s temporary retirement list and obtained 100 percent of his VA benefits.

Combined, that means about $7,800 in income for Nolan, who is married and the father of three.

"We hope that this case and its decision is a catalyst for Congress to create legislation so that no more of our veterans have to go through this again," said law firm founder Natalie Khawam.

Nolan said the ordeal has taken a toll on him and his family. He is grateful for the help, including the work of the PREP team at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa.

"Without these people I wouldn’t be alive today," he said. "With a suicide rate as high as it is, my concern is about what happens to others going through medical and mental health issues."

•••

The Department of Defense announced today the death of a U.S. Navy sailor who was deployed in support of Special Operations Command Forward - East Africa for U.S. Africa Command.

Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew I. Holzemer, of Tennessee, died June 17 at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as a result of a non-combat related incident. The incident is under investigation.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 50 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; 54 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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