Divisions Arise in Wounded Iraq Veteran's Family

Tim Ngo stands between his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan, and his mother, Hong Wyberg. i

Tim Ngo nearly died from head injuries sustained in Iraq. Above, Ngo stands with his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan (left), and his mother, Hong Wyberg, in a photo taken last year. Eamon Coyne hide caption

itoggle caption Eamon Coyne
Tim Ngo stands between his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan, and his mother, Hong Wyberg.

Tim Ngo nearly died from head injuries sustained in Iraq. Above, Ngo stands with his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan (left), and his mother, Hong Wyberg, in a photo taken last year.

Eamon Coyne
Tim and Ani stand in front of the moving truck i

Ngo and Cerghizan prepare for their move from Minnesota to Texas. Joseph Shapiro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Shapiro, NPR
Tim and Ani stand in front of the moving truck

Ngo and Cerghizan prepare for their move from Minnesota to Texas.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR

Ngo's Struggle for Health Care

  

When Tim Ngo returned to Minnesota after his injury in Iraq, he wore a white plastic helmet to protect the thinned-out patches of his skull.

  

But at the time, the Army said Ngo was only 10 percent disabled.

  

Read about Ngo's efforts to get disability benefits.

  

Hong Wyberg

Ngo's mother, Hong Wyberg, cared for Ngo after he came home from Iraq. Joseph Shapiro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Shapiro, NPR

Just to look at him, you wouldn't know that the guy shooting pool at a bar outside St. Paul, Minn., almost died in Iraq. The only clue is that Tim Ngo keeps his hair cut short, revealing the long zigzag scar where surgeons cut out a chunk of his skull.

Ngo steps outside the bar for a smoke. Against the freezing Minnesota night, he wears a flimsy San Antonio Spurs basketball jersey over a white T-shirt. Another smoker tells him, "Thanks for your service," and asks Ngo if he's glad to be back.

"Oh, hell yeah," Ngo responds. "I had to learn how to do everything all over again when I got to Walter Reed."

Ngo tells the smoker about the grenades, and about the shrapnel that ripped through his brain and left him unable to walk or even to put simple words together.

After he arrived at the hospital, he says, he e-mailed friends to tell them what had happened. He thought he had written the full story. But, he says, when his mom read it to him afterward, his story was only six words long:

"Three. Bang. Head. Grenade. Ouch. Hospital."

Ngo says he couldn't believe those were the only words he could find at the time.

It's been four years since Sergeant Ngo's injury in Iraq. Therapists helped him learn to walk again and talk again, then how to cope with the short-term memory loss from his head injury, and how to control the anger that came with his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now, at the age of 24, he's out of the Army and making his way back into the world. And he's about to make one of his biggest changes yet.

A Big Step

The next day, Ngo is packing up the two-bedroom apartment by the highway he shares with his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan.

They pack up the flat-screen TV. They have carriers for their kittens and the two white doves that Ngo bought as presents for Cerghizan.

Just hours from now, Ngo and Cerghizan will drive far away from Minnesota. They're moving to Texas, to the town where Ngo was stationed in the Army. They'll leave behind all the doctors, therapists, friends and family they've counted on.

"It's a real big step in my life — moving," Ngo says. "And a really big step in a relationship, 'cause we're both going down there just by ourselves and it's just gonna be us."

Friends and family are here to help them pack up, but there's one person missing — Ngo's mother. She had been at his side throughout his injury. She hurried to the Army hospital in Germany and saw him with his head swollen grotesquely. She didn't know if her only child would live or die. Then, at Walter Reed, she'd sit by his hospital bed and hold his hand till he fell asleep at night. And she would sneak back into his room early the next morning to hold his hand when he woke up.

Ngo and his mother don't talk to each other anymore.

"She's got to apologize to me and Ani before any contact will happen," Ngo says.

Apologize for what? Ngo's answer rambles. It's hard to sort out what's real complaint, where the head injury plays a part, and what's simply a young man's need to assert his independence. Part of it is that his mother doesn't see Cerghizan, with her lip piercings and the peace sign on her car, as a good match for her Tim.

But Ngo's reasons seem to go deeper than just a clash between mother and girlfriend.

"I think my mom judges her on how she dresses," he says. "And... my mom, since I got injured, all of a sudden, now I'm a baby again. She's got to take care of me, change my dressings and all of that. But... until she apologizes to me and Ani, no contact's going to be made."

Families Strained by Caregiving

Hong Wyberg hasn't spoken to her son since a phone call just before Thanksgiving, when he announced he was leaving.

"I don't know how to fix it. I don't know how to change it except to let him go, let him go to Texas, let him live on his own," she says. "He thinks that I'm too controlling, living in the same state with him."

But from Wyberg's perspective, after Ngo's injury he needed that help. He was dependent upon his mother for things from medical care to balancing his checkbook.

His body healed, but she says the head injury still affected the way he thought and acted.

"I have a hard time... getting Tim to understand he has changed," Wyberg says. "He physically looks the same, but after the accident, after the brain injury, he's different. He's short-tempered, he's quick to jump to conclusions, and he's almost impulsive."

Families often provide heroic support to injured soldiers. That's the public story that's often told. But year after year of caregiving can pull apart even the most dedicated and loving of families.

Wyberg says she and her son were close, until recently.

For a long time, it was just the two of them. She, too, set out to be independent at a young age. She was eight when Saigon fell and her Vietnamese family fled to America. She was just 17 when Tim was born, and she left her small hometown in Texas to raise him as a single mother.

"He asked me, have I ever stayed until the bars closed... And I'm like, 'No, never.' I was busy working, raising a kid. I didn't go to clubs, bars. I haven't a clue how to dance. And I missed out on a lot," Wyberg says. "Tim says, 'What kind of life did you lead?' I was a young mother, I was a young single mom, raising him."

Now Wyberg wonders about the way Ngo wants to lead his life.

A Mother's Wish

If there's any crack in a relationship, the arrival of a serious disability can find that weakness and rip it wide open.

And Ngo didn't have the only serious brain injury in the family. While Wyberg tended to her son at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., back home in Minnesota her husband was caring for his own son. Just months before, Ngo's teenage stepbrother was severely injured in a car accident.

Wyberg's marriage ended. Ngo blamed her for leaving his stepfather, the only father he'd ever known.

Now, Wyberg says she's had to cash in her savings and take a second job — working seven days a week to support her son, at first, and now to support herself.

As Ngo packs to leave, Wyberg is across town in the orthodontist's office, where she works as a technician. Her son is leaving in a few hours. What would she say to him, if she had the chance to say goodbye?

"Just be happy," she says. "Call me if you need anything. I'm always here. I'll always be here for him, that's not a question or an issue. It's just how much does he want me to be involved in his life."

Even though Ngo has cut off contact with his mother, he hardly sounds like an ungrateful son. Back at his apartment, he easily expresses his appreciation for all she's done for him. Like the time they went into a restaurant and a table of women stared and laughed at Ngo. In those days, he wore a kind of football helmet to protect the open spot where his skull had been removed.

"She's like, 'Hold my purse,'" Ngo says. "And she walks over to this table of these elderly women that were laughing. And she's like, 'You know what, why are you guys laughing at my son? Do you know why he has to wear that helmet? He went over to Iraq and he got four grenades to the head. So now he's got to wear that because all that's there is skin and brain.'"

"You don't want to piss my mom off," he says.

Road Toward Independence

A year ago, Ngo took Cerghizan to a fancy restaurant for dinner. Another diner dropped a fork. And when it clanked on the floor, Ngo ducked, the way he would in Iraq when he heard a gunshot.

A year ago, Ngo lost his job stocking shelves at Target because he would get anxious, even hostile, when customers asked questions. But Cerghizan says that since then, she has seen Ngo improve.

"He's changed significantly from just a year ago," she says. "I mean, he was a lot angrier and more aggressive over things because he had untreated PTSD; the VA didn't even know." After a year of therapy, she says, "he's changed a lot, like complete 360."

There are still problems. Ngo says his short-term memory is bad. He leaves notes around the house to remind him what he needs to do.

But he gets full disability benefits from the VA. And just before Christmas, his disability check arrived from Social Security, with $18,000 in retroactive benefits — enough to make the move to Texas.

To Cerghizan, Ngo is the sweet and romantic boyfriend who lavishes her with presents. She's 22 and has just graduated from training to be a veterinarian's assistant.

Ask Ngo about his own dreams for the future and he talks of buying a ranch for Cerghizan in Texas.

"It's kind of her dream, basically, to have a farm with all her animals that she wants and basically to have her happy," he says. "Because she's someone I want to spend the rest of my life with. And she's not even looking at me to see me look at her. But I want to make her happy. I want to give her the things she's never been able to have."

As Ngo says this, he tenderly takes Cerghizan's hand. She's curled up on a couch, softly crying. It's Cerghizan who's having the hard time today.

"This move has been such a really big step," she says. "I'm leaving behind everyone, my sister and my mother. And it is hard... every time I see my sister I'm like... 'When am I going to see her again?' She's been my best friend my whole life and, I mean, I'm excited to move on with Tim, absolutely. I mean, I love him to death and I want to spend the rest of my life with him. But it's just such an extreme step. And I'm excited for it but at the same time I'm kind of hurting to miss everybody."

The next morning Ngo and Cerghizan get up before 5. The weatherman says it's going to be a bitterly cold morning with dangerous wind chills.

As Cerghizan gets behind the wheel of the U-Haul, Ngo drives his new Malibu to the gas station, but gets a bit lost along the way. Cerghizan gives directions over the walkie-talkie.

"I turn on Willow, right?" he asks. She confirms and adds, "Hurry up before I lose a toe or a finger."

They meet up nearby and check their maps. They'll follow the general direction of the Mississippi River. It's the road to Texas. But for Ngo it's a road away from war, away from injury, and the path to recovery, growth and independence.

As the truck takes off Ngo says, "The future looks great for me, I think."

Ngo reports from Texas that last week he asked Cerghizan to marry him. They've set a date for September. He hasn't told his mother.

Injured Troops Struggle to Get Health Care

Tim Ngo stands between his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan, and his mother, Hong Wyberg. i

Tim Ngo (center) suffered a serious head injury while serving in Iraq. The military recognizes him as only "10 percent" disabled, which makes him ineligible for continued military health care. Above, Ngo stands with his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan (left), and his mother, Hong Wyberg. Eamon Coyne hide caption

itoggle caption Eamon Coyne
Tim Ngo stands between his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan, and his mother, Hong Wyberg.

Tim Ngo (center) suffered a serious head injury while serving in Iraq. The military recognizes him as only "10 percent" disabled, which makes him ineligible for continued military health care. Above, Ngo stands with his girlfriend, Ani Cerghizan (left), and his mother, Hong Wyberg.

Eamon Coyne
Gordon England, Deputy Secretary of Defense

Gordon England, deputy secretary of defense, says there is no incentive for the Department of Defense to reduce disability ratings. "We try to treat people fairly and accurately," he said last week. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When service members are forced to leave the military by war injuries or illness, they face a complex system for getting health and disability benefits. Sometimes, health care gets cut off when new veterans find they need it most. Some retired soldiers and their families say they are worried that the Pentagon won't spend enough money to give the injured the care they deserve.

'10 Percent Disabled'

Tim Ngo almost died in a grenade attack in Iraq. He sustained a serious head injury; surgeons had to cut out part of his skull. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he learned to walk and talk again.

When he got back home to Minnesota, he wore a white plastic helmet to protect the thinned-out patches of his skull. People on the street snickered, so Ngo's mother took a black marker and wrote on the helmet: U.S. ARMY, BACK FROM IRAQ. On this much, everyone agrees.

But here is the part that is in dispute: The Army says Tim Ngo is only 10 percent disabled.

"I was hoping I would get at least 50 or 60 or 70 percent," Ngo says. "But they said, 'Yeah, you're only going to get 10 percent'... And I was pretty outraged."

When a service member is retired for medical reasons, the military's disability rating makes a difference. If Ngo had been rated 30 percent disabled or higher, he would have gotten a monthly disability check instead of a small severance check. He also would have stayed in the military's health-care system.

Instead, Ngo enrolled with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Typically, there's a waiting period for the VA.

In October, while he was uninsured, Ngo had a seizure, caused by his war injury. He remembers being outside and blacking out; he fell to the ground on the driveway.

"My girlfriend was freaking out because she didn't know what to do," Ngo says. "She didn't know if I was going to die because I had hit the wrong side of my head."

An ambulance took Ngo to the nearest emergency room for treatment. It cost him $10,000. Ngo says that today, the bills for the incident are still unresolved.

Shrinking Numbers

Since that day, Ngo has gotten health coverage through the VA. Earlier this month, the VA said it would pick up his leftover bills from the emergency room.

The VA has been more generous than the Army all around. It rated Ngo as 100 percent disabled compared with the Army's 10 percent rating.

The VA gives him a monthly disability check, which helps with his finances; his head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder have prevented Ngo from holding on to even a simple job since he returned home.

Ngo's mother, Hong Wyberg, says the Army gives soldiers such as her son low disability ratings to save money.

"I don't fully think they were prepared for the length of time this war is going to last," Wyberg says. "They had no idea of how many injuries or the type of injuries that were going to come out of this."

Michael Parker retired from the Army in October, and he thinks Wyberg's suspicion is correct.

"The more I looked into it, I realized that this system does not have the soldier's back at all," says Parker.

Parker was a lieutenant colonel when he retired last year. Today, he has a disabling condition similar to rheumatoid arthritis. Parker was able to get the Pentagon's lifelong health coverage for himself and his family; he had been in the military long enough — for at least 20 years.

But Parker saw that a lot of other soldiers weren't as lucky, and it inspired him to become an advocate.

"I started posting questions and concerns and opinions on various blogs," he says, "and it just kind of mushroomed from there."

Parker started digging through Pentagon data, and the numbers he found shocked him. He learned that the Pentagon is giving fewer veterans disability benefits today than it was before the Iraq war — despite the fact that thousands of soldiers are leaving the military with serious injuries.

"It went from 102,000 and change in 2001... and now it's down to 89,500," says Parker. "It's counterintuitive. Why are the number of disability retirees shrinking during wartime?"

A 'Cost-Saving Device'?

Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott heads a commission, set up by Congress, to study veterans' disability benefits. At a Senate hearing last week, Scott said that his commission had compared the way the Pentagon and the VA rated the same soldiers.

"The Department of Defense records were matched with VA records on 2.6 million veterans receiving disability compensation," Scott said. "Those rated zero, 10 or 20 percent [disabled] by the Department of Defense were rated in the 30 to 100 percent range by VA more than half the time."

In other words, troops often get small disability checks and no military health care when rated by the Pentagon's disability boards. But when they go to a VA board — with the same injuries — they get much more.

Scott said one reason is that the military's ratings determine whether a person is fit for duty, whereas the VA looks at all conditions that create health problems for a veteran. So the VA ends up rating more disabilities per retired service member.

But Scott said another reason may be that the Pentagon wants to keep down its costs.

"It is also apparent that the Department of Defense has a strong incentive to rate less than 30 percent, so that only severance pay is awarded," Scott said.

These numbers yielded some tough questions for Pentagon officials at the Senate hearing, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

"How do you respond to [the] assertion [that] the Department of Defense reduces disability ratings as a cost-savings device?" asked Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK).

"I can tell you... there's no incentive to do that, senator," England replied. "I mean, maybe that's read into that. But I can tell you, we try to treat people fairly and accurately. And so there's certainly no incentive."

Pentagon officials conceded that the disability system doesn't work as well as it should. They admitted it is too bureaucratic and too often adversarial. They said they would listen to suggestions for change.

Navigating the System

But change in the future will come too late for many soldiers.

April Croft was serving in Afghanistan when she was diagnosed with leukemia. She was treated for a year at Walter Reed. The cancer seemed to go into remission and she was sent home.

"They told her that she was only eligible for a 10 percent rating with the illness of leukemia," says her husband, Mark Croft. "She was livid. She's actually contested that situation about three times already."

The Army never increased its 10 percent rating, but the VA rated her 100 percent disabled.

Croft spoke from his wife's room in a VA hospital in Seattle, where she recently underwent a bone-marrow transplant.

"The VA originally gave her 50 percent and upped it to 100 percent once... she got sicker," Mark Croft explains.

The VA provided the life-saving operation April Croft needed, but the low rating from the Army still mattered: The VA only covers veterans, not their families. It is the military health-care system that will insure an entire family — but only if the vet has a disability rating of 30 percent or more. April Croft has two young children, who are living with their grandparents in California.

Her kids eventually did get military health care — but only recently, after their mother married Mark, who is still in the Army. Mark and April wed in Reno in March. Afterward, he was given leave from the Army. Instead of taking off for a honeymoon, the newlywed couple drove to Seattle and checked into the hospital.

It's the kind of complicated arrangement that many veterans must make to navigate the military's complicated disability system.

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