Rocky proudly shows off his Air Force hat as he begins to share stories of his time in the military. Adorned with the year 1947, the year the Air Force was formed, and the phrase “No one comes close”, the hat is a reminder of his service as a radar operator in the early 1970’s. During his time in the service, Rocky spent a year stationed in Okinawa and then later off a remote island in the South Pacific. After his remote duty, he returned to the United States and was ultimately discharged as a Sergeant in 1975.
The physical toll of his military service followed Rocky into older age. His loving wife of over 25 years became his primary caregiver as he faced the onset of Parkinson’s, in addition to suffering from colitis and other agonizing physical injuries throughout his body. During his time overseas, Rocky was exposed to chemicals linked to Parkinson’s, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and other auto immune disorders. Like many veterans, Rocky was slow to connect his resulting medical issues to his time in the service.
“As American soldiers we are trained to be independent. We are hesitant to go to the Veteran’s Administration (VA) to ask for help or to get disability benefits. It’s easy to relate to someone with a bullet wound or a shrapnel wound, but when you look like you are healthy, it is harder to see the damage that was done.”
Rocky’s condition became so debilitating that he had to stop working in 2014. He and his wife were forced to sell their home when their social security benefits were insufficient to cover their mortgage and his medical bills. He knew additional benefits were available to him as a veteran, but he did not know where to start.
“I didn’t know how to navigate the disability benefit process alone. It was too daunting. There is no way we would have been able to do it without help. Thank God for Emon.”
Emon Northe, staff attorney and Veterans Legal Services Project Coordinator at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, became an impassioned advocate for Rocky and his wife, Celeste. Ultimately submitting an application over 400 pages long on Rocky’s behalf, Emon worked tirelessly to help Rocky secure a grant of individual unemployability which provided access to backpay and disability benefits, as well as healthcare benefits for his wife. Emon’s work had a lasting impact on Rocky’s long-term economic stability:
“The disability benefits have allowed us to totally turn our lives around financially. We were able to buy a house and make it wheelchair accessible.”
Unfortunately, Rocky’s experience is not unique. The VA’s disability benefit process is extremely stringent, requiring extensive documentation from the time you are hurt through the day you apply for benefits. Rocky leaned on his wife’s thoroughness to help him supply the necessary documentation and acknowledges that not all veterans are fortunate to have that family support. In addition, Emon’s legal experience and thorough knowledge of the benefit system meant she knew where to push for further documentation and what would ultimately be required to ensure Rocky was granted access to benefits. Without support from family or legal representation, many veterans are left to navigate the system alone and are vulnerable to continued instability. Rocky is grateful for the Advocacy Center:
“It gives us peace of mind that there is an organization like yours that is willing to step in for people that don’t have the money or the resources. Having someone there for you is a blessing. You showed me that it was not my fault. You helped me see that I served this country and was hurt because of it.”
During his time as a client, Rocky developed a special relationship with Emon and expresses deep gratitude for her dedication:
“Emon went above and beyond to help us. I would adopt her if she let me. She was like an angel to us, but I guess angels don’t carry cell phones.”
If you or someone you know is a veteran facing economic instability or housing insecurity, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is here to help. We serve low-income veterans and families in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Union Counties who are seeking help with disability benefit claims and appeals, discharge upgrades and over-payment issues, as well as additional civil legal matters, at little or no cost. Learn more how we can help.