ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Fighting and surviving in Iraq does not necessarily make it easier to survive in this economy. Just ask Jason Brunson. The disabled Army veteran lives with his family near Saint Augustine, Florida. And for the latest in our series of kitchen table conversations to find out how Americans are faring in the current downturn, we sent NPR's Daniel Zwerdling to meet the Brunsons.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: You want to hear the most troubling thing about Jason Brunson's problems? They're typical for a lot of vets. He had to leave the Army six months ago because of injuries he got in Iraq and he's getting government benefits, but the Brunsons are struggling.
(Soundbite of knocking on door)
Ms. ELLEN BRUNSON: Come in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ZWERDLING: Their street's lined with houses that look just a step away from trailers. The Brunsons rent a house made of cinder blocks.
(Soundbite of dogs barking)
ZWERDLING: Are they friendly?
Mr. JASON BRUNSON (Army Veteran): Not to strangers, no.
ZWERDLING: Jason Brunson is almost 35. He's lost a lot of weight. He looks haunted. His wife's name is Ellen, and she's short and full of life. If you focus on their furniture, you see a tired old sofa and worn out chairs. But Ellen spruced it up for Christmas.
Ms. BRUNSON: I always said when I growed up and had a husband and my own home I'd decorate it every year, and we do it till the hilt.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BRUNSON: A lot of these ornaments I've had for years.
ZWERDLING: The Brunsons have a small round table in the corner of their living room and it's buried under documents. They tell the story of Jason Brunson's life.
Mr. BRUNSON: I got everything laid out - army, civilian doctors.
ZWERDLING: These records show that Brunson joined the army in 2001. He went to Iraq four years later and he got injured three times. Once, a huge piece of equipment fell on his head. Another time, he crashed into an Iraqi police truck. Still another day, a rocket landed nearby.
Ms. BRUNSON: This is his wall of fame right here. This is his certificate of promotion when he was promoted to sergeant.
ZWERDLING: By the time Brunson came home, he was having crippling headaches. Sometimes his neck hurt so much, he could hardly stand up. He'd explode in rages. He even threatened to kill one of his doctors.
Ms. BRUNSON: He started having to go to the emergency room like every other day.
ZWERDLING: Still, Brunson wanted to go back to Iraq, but the army told him he was too sick. And on June 29th this year, they gave him an honorable discharge on medical grounds. And today, the VA says Jason Brunson is 70 percent disabled. They list PTSD and his terrible headaches, plus psychological tests show that Brunson has brain damage. For instance, ask him what he did in the army.
Mr. BRUNSON: I did the maintenance to keep the vehicles up and - where was I at?
ZWERDLING: While we've been talking, their family has been coming in and out.
Ms. BRUNSON: This is my oldest son Kyle.
ZWERDLING: Their son's fiancee lives here, too.
Ms. JANIE ELIZABETH MANSO(ph): Janie Elizabeth Manso. I'm 20 years old.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BRUNSON: This is little Jason Jr.
ZWERDLING: But now, it's time to get back to business. It's time to talk about how Brunson's injuries affect their finances. Does anybody have a calculator?
Mr. BRUNSON: Jason.
Ms. BRUNSON: Jason, where's your calculator, baby?
ZWERDLING: When Jason was still in the army, he was making $3,600 per month. Today, he gets way less in disability checks from the VA. To be precise, he gets...
Ms. BRUNSON: $1,332 a month, and he was just awarded combat-related special compensation pay which is in the amount of $264 a month.
ZWERDLING: So, that totals?
Ms. BRUNSON: All of it combined is $1,557 per month.
ZWERDLING: Which totals roughly $1,600, that's less than half what he used to make. OK? So now, let's go through their bills. Janie keeps a running tab on the calculator.
Ms. BRUNSON: Our rent is $900 a month. This is a light bill, $218.83.
Ms. MANSO: $200 light bill.
Ms. BRUNSON: Our water bill runs about $80 a month.
ZWERDLING: Janie subtracts the water bill and phone and cable and groceries and the grand total is.
Ms. MANSO: $9 is what you would have left.
ZWERDLING: But wait a minute, they forgot gasoline and car insurance. They forgot to mention $5,000 in medical bills that their insurance wouldn't cover. Ellen says they have neglected their kids.
Ms. BRUNSON: Our 11-year-old, he - you know how they grow.
Mr. BRUNSON: Growth spurts.
Ms. BRUNSON: Yeah, he must be like in a growth spurt because in two months time, he's grew out two pair of jeans that I bought when school started. But I can't afford to just go out and buy him clothes that he needs.
ZWERDLING: I think a lot of listeners would be saying, well why don't you guys get jobs?
Ms. BRUNSON: Jason has applied for work. He's applied at Express Lube, which he had the job, was going to report to work and then the man said, I'm sorry can't hire you because my insurance will not cover you because of the medications you take.
ZWERDLING: Oh, right. Did we forget to talk about Jason's medications? There's a wooden bowl on the table and it's crammed with orange plastic vials of more than a dozen prescription drugs.
Mr. BRUNSON: This is Depakote. It's a mood stabilizer. And this is Percocet's Oxycodone. And this is Soma, muscle relaxatives. This is...
ZWERDLING: Wait, more?
Mr. BRUNSON: I take about 30 pills a day.
ZWERDLING: Ellen and Jason say nobody would hire him even before the economy fell apart. And they say she can't look for a job because she has to stay home and dole out his pills. Jason's memory is so bad, he might forget to take them or maybe he would get confused and take too many. Ellen says she remembers the exact moment a few months ago. They were sitting on the couch.
Ms. BRUNSON: And I told Jason, I said, we can't afford to even live. We thought we might have to move in with my mother for a little while, and she's already got my brother and his kids living with her, you know. And I thought we can't do that, and that's when I finally sat here and said you know what? I'm not going to let this happen. There's somebody out there that will help us.
ZWERDLING: And to find that somebody, Ellen searched on the Web. And she found dozens of private groups that help families like them. They have a stack of applications.
Ms. BRUNSON: Operation Helping Heal, Veteran Love.
ZWERDLING: The Brunsons say so far, they've received about $7,000. Although they usually don't get cash, the groups send the money to their creditors.
Ms. BRUNSON: You can go to rebuildhope.org and like you see right here, if you're a soldier in need you can request help.
ZWERDLING: What's your sense of having to go to a Web site like this, having to go to all these organizations and ask for money in your situation?
Mr. BRUNSON: As a man, embarrassing because at one point in time I could support my family on my own.
Ms. BRUNSON: He has a hard time coping with...
(Soundbite of crying)
ZWERDLING: I'm sorry. I know it's hard to talk about.
Ms. BRUNSON: Just talking about all of it just - everything just brings it all back.
ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, the whole family will tell you, we are going to celebrate Christmas. Ellen calls out, Janie, turn on the lights.
Ms. MANSO: It's going to get pretty bright.
ZWERDLING: And they lead me outside to their scruffy lawn. Wow! This is fantastic. So, tell our listeners what you have here.
Ms. BRUNSON: Well, I have a big old, I think that's an oak tree, the whole trunk covered in lights.
ZWERDLING: Which are blinking.
Ms. BRUNSON: I have a baby deer and a reindeer, three crosses covered with every color light you can think of.
ZWERDLING: This makes me sound totally like a scrooge. Given all the terrible economic problems you're having, should you be spending the money paying for all these pretty, but all these probably very expensive Christmas decorations?
Ms. BRUNSON: I'm not going to be unhappy and cry and act like a scrooge because we don't have no money or anything and it's Christmas. I'm going to make it happy for my son, no matter what I have to do, you know.
Mr. JASON BRUNSON, JR.: That's right. Make the best with what you have.
(Soundbite of boy hollering)
ZWERDLING: But there's a new problem, Jason got into a fight recently with a manager of a Texaco garage. The police have charged him with assault, and so he has to borrow $10,000 from a relative to hire a lawyer. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.
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