Enemy fire took down Army pilot Joe Kozloski's helicopter twice in Vietnam, years after he served two tours of artillery in Korea. He has two Purple Hearts, from injuries suffered in two tours of Vietnam. He long ago lost full mobility, but more recently lost safe use of his beloved garage. First responders found a way to help.
At 84, classified 100 percent disabled, Kozloski routinely falls in his home. He cannot get up, and his wife cannot lift him. She calls 911.
"Sometimes he falls three times a week, but other times we can go a month or two without a fall," says Joe's wife, Nan.
When he falls, the Donald Wescott Fire Department rushes to the scene. The firefighters know and revere "Mr. Kozloski." The hybrid professional-volunteer department, founded in 1981, serves about 10,000 urban residents between northern Colorado Springs and Monument.
"Mr. Kozloski loves working in his garage," said Wescott Lt. Curt Leonhardt. "But he often had trouble with a few steps from the house to the garage, because he uses a walker and is very susceptible to falls."
The couple asked the Veterans Administration to install a railing, then waited at least nine months. "We're waiting, waiting, waiting," Joe said. "Then we ruffle some feathers and they tell us to go to Denver for approval. They said only some VA specialist in Denver could make this happen, even though they have all sorts of doctors here."
A trip to the Denver VA, involving 70 miles of freeway traffic, wasn't a good option. "I can't drive to Denver," Nan said. "We don't have any way to get there, and they would not send someone down here."
Before the couple could arrange a Denver appointment and trip, Joe fell on the garage steps May 25. Wescott picked him up and examined him. A responder asked why he didn't have a railing or ramp.
"They were going through a lot of process with the VA trying to get a rail," Leonhardt said. "It just does not need to take a lot of time and bureaucracy to get this done."
The Wescott responders huddled, assessed their skills, and decided they could solve the problem without delay. They offered to install a handrail but suggested a ramp.
"Next thing you know, I'm at Home Depot with the Wescott guys picking up lumber and supplies," Nan said. "These guys are like family to us. It is like they are our children."
Three days later, four Wescott personnel spent Sunday building a wooden ramp that turns Joe's steps into a gradual slope he can easily manage with only a cane. The builders included driver Roger Lance, firefighter-paramedic Eric Bogenrief, and paramedics Doug McIntyre and Dennis Wesselink.
"In a few weeks, I'll run up and down that thing," Joe said, with the look and tone of a man enjoying the return of long-lost freedom.
The couple are not bitter with the VA, despite trouble getting help with a rail. VA contractors provide Joe with in-home physical therapy. Other VA contractors help clean the home, and the couple are thankful.
"But that other side of the VA, the bureaucracy... Oh, that can be another matter we won't go into," Joe said.
We know the VA could do far better serving Americans who sacrificed their bodies to protect everyone else. Politicians and the public point fingers and place blame, which they probably should. We must fix the VA.
Meanwhile, we should act to ensure our veterans get what they need, when they need it, regardless of bureaucracy. Our vets did not stand back waiting for third-party solutions when enemies threatened our way of life.
Wescott Fire Department set the perfect example. Knowing of a veteran's dilemma, they sprung to action and went far beyond minimal duty. They gave their time, effort and skills to improve a hero's life.
We can all try to be more like the Wescott responders. Plumbers, electricians, contractors, lawyers, doctors, accountants and others should look for nearby veterans in need. We should find opportunities to help - just as the men of Wescott did for Joe Kozloski.