By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It was about four years back into civilian life that Jason Franco decided he'd had enough of going nowhere. He'd gotten out of active duty for the Marines in 1997 and took on jobs as a drill instructor at a juvenile boot camp for three years and security at a nuclear plant for another.
"I just saw that this wasn't a career and to get back in the military," he says.
This time, though, he decided to go the Air Force route. "In the Marine Corps we have a chow hall and in the Air Force we have a dining facility," he says. He opted for the Texas Air National Guard because he could keep his E4 noncom rank and be close to his family. Franco has a lot of family, he'll somewhat shamefacedly admit. He's been married three times and has a child by each marriage. He's 33 years old.
When he signed up with the Guard, he made sure they knew he didn't want one of those "traditional" jobs — the one-weekend-a-month duty. He liked driving trucks and keeping track of supplies as he'd done in his Marine life, but he needed whatever job would give him a full week of work. That's how he became a security guard for the 147th Fighter Wing at Ellington Field, where he guarded planes and base personnel.
In late 2002 he was deployed to Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait for six months, from November to May 2003, where he once again spent his days guarding jets and their personnel. He worked 13- to 14-hour days, six days a week. He did well enough that he got some more medals, and was promoted to staff sergeant in 2004 after he returned.
Everything was rolling along well enough until the late summer of 2005. After a visit to the dentist, Franco noticed a swelling in his mouth. A trip to a doctor got him an operation, a biopsy of his right tonsil and a diagnosis of throat cancer.
"My doctor asked me how long have I been smoking," he says. "I said I don't smoke and never had. No one in my family smokes. The only thing I could come up with is all the aircraft exhaust I had to be around while guarding troops and supplies coming into Kuwait for the buildup of the Iraqi Freedom War."
Franco and his family were covered by TRICARE health insurance, provided for members of the military. No complaints there. He had convalescent leave including six weeks of radiation treatment, Monday through Friday for six weeks in October and November of 2005.
On Thursday, November 23, 2005, he went to Colonel James Matlock to have his leave extended with a doctor's note saying he needed another three months for recovery. Matlock denied the request and told him to be at work the following Monday. Another supervisor told Franco to go home on his own leave and then come back with a doctor's note, which is what he did.
Franco's records of the months that follow, along with copies of e-mails and forms he either kept or was able to retrieve, show an ongoing battle between his superiors questioning why he can't be returned to full duty, and his doctors, who keep writing notes saying that Franco needs time to recover and can't do the job he used to do.
And in the end, the service agreed, in its own special way. In February 2007, a military medical board in San Antonio said that Franco — whose cancer was in remission — was fit for duty. Because he was a National Guard member, a second determination was made by the office of the air guard's surgeon general and that office found him "medically disqualified for worldwide duty." That meant Franco couldn't be sent anywhere, couldn't be an everyman. He was fit, but unfit. He was out.
He staved off the decision with an appeal to the San Antonio medical board — he was put on medical hold and allowed to work a desk job with four-hour days — but the reprieve lasted only five months. With three days' notice, he was told he was on his way out. On the final day, a Sunday, when he went around trying to collect his paperwork, he was told to come back the next week. They were only working a half day that day because of an annual celebration that Ellington has for its service members and their dependents.
On July 15, 2007, Jason Franco was cashiered out of the Texas Air National Guard. He got no benefits or severance pay. He had no prospects. It was Family Day at the base.
Just what is any soldier or sailor entitled to if he goes to war for the United States and comes back maimed or sick? Did Jason Franco get any better or worse treatment than if he'd been shot by a sniper instead of enveloped in a haze of carcinogenic fumes?
Well yes, no and maybe so.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Ryan, TANG's designated representative for questions about Franco's case, any soldier who gets hurt and honorably discharged is going to be referred to the Veterans Administration for his health care needs. Which is what happened to Franco after he got out of the service, although since his service-related disability has been judged at 60 instead of 100 percent, he gets a smaller disability check, and his family is not medically covered through him. (While the VA did find that Franco's cancer is service-related, it assigned him zero monthly benefits for that, considering it cured. Ten percent comes from the tinnitus he still suffers and 50 percent for a major depressive disorder caused by the change in his lifestyle because of the cancer. He says his hearing loss, headaches and pain and tingling in other parts of his body are related to the cancer and its treatment, but the VA says they are not .)