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Texas Air National Guard Boots Sick Soldier

Jennifer and Jason Franco are trying to figure out how they've going to survive.
Margaret Downing

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.
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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 .)

As a full-time, active-duty soldier, it appears that Franco should have qualified for the "Transitional Assistance Management Program" under the military's insurance, which would have provided him up to 180 days of health care benefits as someone who was "involuntarily separating from active duty under honorable conditions."

But as Jennifer Franco discovered when she took their young son to the doctor's a week after her husband's discharge, that wasn't so. Her husband's insurance had been canceled the day he left ­Ellington.

Surely this was just a mistake. Jennifer checked with TRICARE, who told her the base hadn't put the right code on the discharge papers to continue the insurance. She called the base to get this fixed, talked to a lot of people and nothing changed.

The Texas Air National Guard at El­ling­ton is not an easy organization to get information from. A call to a senior officer, State Command Chief Sam Davis, got a cordial referral to the office of the commander on base, whose secretary in a subsequent phone call said all questions would have to be answered by the attorney representing the base.

This was Lieutenant Colonel Ryan, who helpfully answered some questions in general, would not discuss Franco in particular and who said he himself didn't know too much about the TRICARE transitional assistance program which has only been extended to National Guard and Reserve members in the last two or three years.

A customer service representative at TRICARE cheerily confirmed that if a branch of service or base does not code an outgoing member as deserving of continued insurance benefits, that person doesn't get anything.

Franco says that after awhile, he and his wife just gave up trying for the insurance coverage. He talked to Lieutenant Colonel Keith Garber, the local rep on base for the Office of the Inspector General, but after talking with him, Franco says he was convinced that a protest would go nowhere. Contacted by the Houston Press, Garber said he couldn't comment on Franco's case, explained the basic appeal assessment process and said he could not answer how many investigations his office does each year at Ellington, without approval of the Air Force inspector general.

Franco is somehow convinced that he should have been given a medical retirement. But to be considered for that, a service member would have had at least a minimum of 15 years of active service. Franco had only slightly more than nine.

According to Ryan, when someone is processed for an involuntary separation, he is notified of the reasons and if he has more than six years total service, he is entitled to ask for a hearing before a discharge board. Most service members waive this opportunity, Ryan says, figuring it's too much trouble. Franco says no one explained anything about a discharge board to him.

Franco did meet with Rick Alvarez, national service officer for AMVETS, a nonprofit group that helps former service members file VA claims. Franco says Alvarez is helping him appeal his 60 percent designation; Alvarez says he's probably filed for what's called a "reconsideration," which takes about six months compared to a formal appeal' s two-plus years.

According to Franco, when he asked the base about his severance pay he was told to take that up with the VA, and when he asked the VA about it, personnel there said, "Hey, we don't do anything about that."

He went back to the base and was told by several people, he says, that he'd be getting separation pay. Eventually he was told no one had ever put in the paperwork for him to receive it.

 

Franco is adamant that people at the base not only lied to him for months, but attempted to cover their tracks by removing paperwork from his file and by writing things into his file that were not true, such as saying he'd been to their office when he was off base and on leave.

Franco says he asked for a second evaluation by the medical board back in February. A February 15 e-mail from medical technician Angelique Tavira to the medical board liaison in San Antonio shows she has requested a reconsideration of Franco's case. The San Antonio liaison responds that Franco has to be put on medical hold if he's going to be re-­evaluated. On February 16, Tavira writes that she is working on getting an SF600 written to put Franco on military hold and asks that he is put on military hold "until after his re-eval at WHMC." (the San Antonio medical facility.) On February 20, Tavira sends another e-mail asking to be advised when Franco is placed on medical hold so they may make an appointment for him at the San Antonio hospital.

After five months of medical hold, on July 12, Franco met with Major Pamela Thormin, who told him the medical board had come back with the same evaluation as the first time and that he would be leaving in three days. He went back to her office the next day and asked to see the second evaluation. She looked for it on her desk, even left the room and came back saying she couldn't find it, he says. Later, he says, she admitted there had never been a second medical re-evaluation, that she had no idea he'd been on medical hold and that he'd fallen through the cracks.

In a July 15 e-mail, Captain Steven Lowenstein, who was investigating Franco's complaints, wrote Thormin and other command personnel asking about their characterization of Franco's return to duty as "an oversight and miscommunication." In a subsequent e-mail, Thormin said Franco "has been on continuous duty much longer than he should have been, he has been on borrowed time." Franco says he didn't understand how there had been any miscommunication, his name was on the weekly slide show in Commander Lanny B. McNeely's office detailing who was on sick leave and medical hold.

On July 18, when he went to copy his personnel records from his file in Thormin's office, some pages were missing, he says. Office personnel went into Thormin's office and found the missing pages on her desk, including the e-mails about the SF600 request and medical re-­evaluation. That same day, he received a sealed file from the medical office that was supposed to contain all his medical and dental records. When he opened it later, he discovered the SF600 was not there.

On August 14, he met with Command Chief Priscilla Leger, who told him his medical request data had been entered into the wrong system by Tavira and that none of the e-mails mattered because of the mistake. He asked about the missing paperwork, and was told by Leger the next day that it had been an honest mistake that medical personnel made copying his files.
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Jason Franco used to run all the time, he says. He was always outdoors, playing basketball, always physical. Now he avoids the sun like the plague.

He used to make about $4,000 a month. Now the VA gives him $1,152 a month, of which $500 goes to support his daughters from his two prior marriages.

He's been turned down twice for SSI benefits from Social Security and has recently hired a lawyer to try to turn that around.

In 2003, he and his wife bought a house on Highway 3 to be near Ellington. They also were able to buy an acre of land out in Rosharon for sometime later; he wanted his kids to have a bigger backyard to run in.

The house is standing empty, the land undeveloped and both are about to be foreclosed on. They've already had one vehicle repossessed and may soon lose another. His wife's salary is about a fourth of what he used to make, and they don't make enough money to pay for the insurance premiums on their son.

He says he's been told his jaw is in a constant state of deterioration. He has another lump there that he thinks should be biopsied.

They live now with her parents. As Franco puts it, they've lost everything; it's like they're back in high school again, starting all over.

He's written letters to Congressmen Gene Green and Nick Lampson, both of whom wrote letters to the military on his behalf, and nothing happened.

In the year since he's been out of the service, Franco has made two stabs at other jobs. He tried to be a car salesman and lasted one week walking the lot in the sun. "It felt like I was there six months."

 

He went on a trial run for the next place, a uniform delivery business. He figured he could deliver uniforms, but when he got on the route with the driver, "they had those big old rubber mats like from stores from outside people walk on, some are five to seven feet long and heavy and that day he had over 100 to deliver. Nah I can't do that."

He's a high school graduate without any college. He thinks he could be a real estate agent because he could rest during the day and work when he felt able. He went to classes, studied all the material, but "there are some credit issues," namely the car that got repossessed right after he had the cancer treatment, and he's "on hold" awaiting clearance to take the state and national tests for a license.

According to a couple of Guard veterans who talked with the Press, the Guard has always had its rules and expects its people to be able to decipher and adhere to them. One described it as a well-oiled machine that works fine as long as you don't attempt to get in its way. He wondered if Franco had met all his deadlines to respond to his notification that he was being dismissed and followed up on all the appeals open to him. The other said nobody explained anything to him when he left the Guard 15 years ago; they just refer you to the paperwork you signed when you joined.

Maybe Franco just wasn't savvy enough to stay the course, although on the other hand he had the brains to get and keep records of his encounters with ­authorities.

It certainly appears from the records Franco retained that there was a certain degree of service members covering ass, faulty memories and possibly some rewriting of history.

But by his own admission, Franco can't do the job anymore. In the private world, if you can't do the job you're fired. Of course, in private business you're not usually risking your life for your country.

When he was still making the rounds of base offices, he talked to one officer who, after listening to his story, told him that "Vietnam vets didn't get anything either."

"I told him I'd thought we'd gotten better since then," Franco says.

margaret.downing@houstonpress.com


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