COURTESY OF PAULA HEINE
Isaac Stevens, left, a former Kahaluu resident injured in an Army training accident, has become close with Simon Heine and his family, also from Hawaii, who live near him in Texas. Shown with Stevens is Heine's daughter Quiana.
Soldier endures long path to healing
STORY SUMMARY »
| READ THE FULL STORY
A former soldier from Hawaii injured in an Army training accident on the mainland exemplifies the all-too-common snafus that afflict veterans after service.
For Isaac Stevens, a 1998 Castle High School graduate, the accident was the beginning of a nightmare that included misdiagnoses, unsuccessful surgeries, stultifying red tape, unfounded charges of desertion and homelessness as a civilian.
Only recently has his situation improved, thanks to caring social workers and a service organization called Operation Homefront.
Stevens, who lives at an Operation Homefront housing project in San Antonio and is partially paralyzed, hopes more operations will allow him to walk again as he strives to become a productive member of society.
SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
FULL STORY »
Army Spc. Isaac Stevens, 28, was at the end of his rope one night back in April 2006 when he decided to die.
His dream of becoming a career soldier was over. His marriage was in tatters. His once athletic body, wracked with pain, was confined to a wheelchair.
Depression had become his constant companion. So one night at Fort Knox, Ky., the Hawaii-born soldier swallowed all his pain medication and waited for the end.
His supervisor saved his life.
"He came by my house to check on me and found me passed out on the ground," he said. "He told me he knew something wasn't right with me that day."
A 1998 Castle High School graduate, Stevens was on his way to Iraq when he was badly injured in an obstacle course training exercise at Fort Benning, Ga.
The accident was only the beginning of an enduring nightmare that included misdiagnoses by Army doctors, unsuccessful surgeries, a miasma of red tape, preposterous charges of desertion and homelessness as a civilian. Only recently has a ray of hope shined into his thicket of despair, thanks to caring social workers and a service organization called Operation Homefront.
His story offers a chilling glimpse into the challenges that face many veterans with physical or psychological disabilities.
Simon and Paula Heine pose for a picture with Isaac Stevens, in wheelchair, in the Operation Homefront village outside of San Antonio.
BORN AND RAISED in Kahaluu, Stevens worked in the construction industry after high school but naturally gravitated to military service. Both his divorced parents and uncles had served in uniform.
While in basic training at Fort Benning, Stevens was at the top of a scaling wall when another soldier below, amid gunfire and confusion, pulled on a rope that sent him plummeting to the ground.
Injuries to his head and spine required several surgeries, but the repeated trauma left the infantryman partially paralyzed on his left side.
At one point, Stevens took leave to visit his mother in Northern California and ended up in the hospital due to nerve damage in his arm. Although Stevens and his mother kept in touch with his command, the Army inexplicably declared him absent without leave and cut off his medical benefits.
His mother, Michelle Silletto, had to shell out $400 for his pain medication.
"I didn't care. I just wanted him better," she said.
Accused of unauthorized absence, the Army had Stevens arrested and shipped to Fort Knox, where he spent two weeks in confinement. Pressured to confess to desertion, Stevens refused.
"I was frustrated and humiliated," he said. "I had pretty much given up."
Thanks to Silletto's phone and hospital record-keeping, they were able to prove his whereabouts, and he was finally released from confinement.
With an honorable discharge, Stevens returned to Hawaii, where he found himself adrift in a sea of mounting debts exacerbated by a pay glitch that left him with rising penalty fees imposed by his bank. By the time he realized what had happened, he had accrued $1,100 in bank charges.
"I had to take out a loan for $1,000," Stevens said, "and the bank would only take off $200 of their fees."
A helping hand at last
Unable to afford the high rent in Honolulu, Stevens ended up living in the veterans homeless shelter in Kalaeloa.
But then he caught a break.
Stevens was referred to Jan Takata, an outpatient medical social worker at the Tripler Army Medical Center who became his advocate.
"I felt really bad for him," Takata said.
Nonprofit group helps military families
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, one in four veterans is homeless at some point.
"If a wounded service member doesn't have someone in his or her corner, fighting for them, pay mistakes and glitches take on a life of their own," said Vickie Cariello, chapter president of Operation Homefront, Hawaii.
Operation Homefront, based in Shertz, Texas, outside San Antonio, is a nonprofit organization that works to help military men and women and their families. Operating under a memorandum of understanding with the Defense Department, the organization has more than 4,000 volunteers in 31 chapters nationwide.
Since its inception in late 2001, Operation Homefront has provided critical assistance to more than 45,000 military families in need.
The organization was co-founded by Amy Palmer, a wounded veteran who knows the difficulties of obtaining benefits when transitioning from active duty to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"It took 17 months for me to finally receive my VA benefits," Palmer said.
Services include emergency food, baby care items, vehicles and other aid, financial assistance, furniture, moving assistance, social outreach and computers so that children and spouses can keep in touch with a deployed military member.
Takata found him a space at the YMCA homeless shelter in Honolulu, stopping by occasionally to give him money to buy food.
"She really bent over backward for me," Stevens said.
Stevens still was not receiving his VA benefits when Takata referred him to Hawaii Cares, a state-funded organization that provides free crisis support to those in need. Tim Stillman, a social worker, contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye for help.
"Sen. Inouye's office has a reputation for being advocates for veterans," Stillman said.
Jennifer Sabas, Inouye's chief of staff, said the office played a "facilitating role."
While Stevens was moving from shelter to shelter, the Hawaii chapter of Operation Homefront, an organization that helps military members and their families, had been working with Takata to get Stevens a more permanent place to live.
After Stevens was accosted early one morning in the elevator at the shelter, they decided on a new facility in San Antonio near Brooke Army Medical Center, where Stevens now receives treatment for his physical and psychological problems. The 18 units, named Operation Homefront Village, are fully furnished apartments provided free of charge by the nonprofit organization.
"God bless their souls," Stevens said.
The doctors at Brooke are hopeful that additional surgeries will enable Stevens to walk again.
Stevens' mother, meanwhile, has noticed an improvement in his attitude.
"He's getting some of his old spunk back," she said.
"The staff here has gone above and beyond for me," Stevens said.
Although Stevens misses his own family, ohana can be found in the most unlikely of places. Another Hawaii resident, Simon Heine, 31, lives across the hall from Stevens with his wife and four children.
After three tours in Iraq, Heine was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and deemed unfit for duty.
The Heines also know firsthand the pain of losing financial support when a service member is wounded. Heine's wife, Paula, had to quit college and find a job to help support the family. Her plans for getting a degree in human resources are on hold until her husband recovers.
Operation Homefront again made a huge difference.
"I was desperate when I called them," said Paula Heine, 30. "They asked me how they could help."
Stevens and Heine have grown close, and the two families help each other out. Stevens refers to the Heine children as his nieces and nephews.
"They've been taking care of each other," Paula Heine said.
And as for Stevens, he said he would love to move back home someday. "I love Hawaii," said Stevens. "It's where I'm from."