Updated: July 3, 2013 at 2:42 pm
Kash Alvaro, an Army veteran who has been suffering from seizures since being hit by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2009 but was stripped of medical benefits when he was kicked out of the Army for minor misconduct in 2012, has been granted health-care and disability benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"This is great news," Alvaro said Monday. "Now I can finally go to the hospital."
The news came just days after Alvaro collapsed in convulsions in a V.A. hearing room.
Alvaro was featured in The Gazette's "Other Than Honorable" series in May showing how more soldiers are being discharged from the Army for misconduct each year, and among the discharged are injured combat veterans who are stripped of their benefits as punishment. The Gazette detailed how, with nowhere else to turn, the homeless 24-year-old Alvaro relied on the emergency room when he had seizures and had up to $50,000 in unpaid bills.
A day after the story ran, the V.A. called Alvaro to schedule a hearing for consideration of benefits.
On June 23, Alvaro got a ride to the V.A. regional office in Denver for a formal hearing.
Nervously clenching his jaw, the former combat engineer described to the hearing officer how his platoon would go out daily in search of roadside bombs and how many soldiers were killed along the way. He described being thrown across the road by a blast that left him forever changed.
"I went from a soldier who never missed a day to one who could not get up," he said. "And the unit, they said, 'he's just faking it.' The seizures, the depression. I begged for help, but they gave up on me."
Alvaro said he eventually was discharged from the Army for going AWOL.
The hearing officer ended the session by hugging Alvaro. "We have leeway in what we can do," he told Alvaro. "You'll hear from us. I cannot tell you when it will be done. Unfortunately, we are working cases upon cases."
The V.A. has a backlog of pending benefits claims that has been growing for years. There are currently about 500,000, according to the V.A.
Veterans in El Paso County wait a year, on average, to hear from the V.A. about benefits, according to the county's veterans services office.
"I was ready to wait months," Alvaro said.
On his way out of the hearing room, Alvaro slumped against the wall, and his eyes went blank. Friends and V.A. workers helped him to a chair, then to the floor, where he went into convulsions After five minutes the shaking stopped, but Alvaro was far from OK.
"Kash, Kash, do you know where you are?" a nurse asked.
"They're not going to make it. It's too late," Alvaro said. He started struggling, breathing frantically and calling the names of dead men from his unit.
He flopped back into a unresponsive state and then calmly lifted his head a few minutes later.
"Where am I?" he said.
A friend told him he was in the V.A. hearing room.
"How'd it go?" he asked.
The friend gave him a thumbs up.
On Saturday, four days after the hearing, Alvaro got a letter from the V.A. saying he had been approved for benefits.
"It's a gift from God as far as I'm concerned," said Christine Cook, a veterans advocate who has been helping Alvaro. "They must have made this a priority case. Now he can finally see a neurologist."
The V.A. gave Alvaro a 50 percent disability rating and paid him retroactively for more than a year of missed benefits. He has appointments in the next week for physical evaluations that could increase his disability rating.
For now, Alvaro is staying at the house of a veteran in Arvada, where he is taking online courses in English and criminal justice. Once his health improves, he hopes to go back to school full time.
"I am still staying where I am for now," he said. "I still need the support. I don't think I could do it on my own."
Contact Dave Philipps