By Shane Jernigan
In January of 2023, the 75th Ranger Regiment lost a giant among legends, Joe Kapacziewski. Joe was the first ranger to return to combat after having his leg amputated. He deployed on multiple occasions with the 75th Ranger Regiment and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Besides his multiple combat deployments post-amputation, Joe was also a para-athlete, representing the Ranger Regiment and USSOCOM at the Warrior Games and competing nationally in different endurance events. To say that Joe was the “poster boy” for ranger resilience and toughness would be an understatement.
I met Joe several times at the Center for the Intrepid (CFI) in San Antonio. He was the guy people looked to as the epitome of mental tenacity and determination. No one was asking Joe if things were “okay.” It would’ve seemed insulting to ask a guy who was doing the things he was still doing such a silly question. Of course, he was “ok,” he was still killing it as a Ranger. So, when I got the news that Joe had taken his own life, I was shocked.
As hard as Joe’s death hit the Ranger Community, it was even more shocking for those of us who knew “amputee” Joe as one of us. Besides the internal dialogue that this immediately created, discussions amongst us amputees began. It was a wake-up! The idea that “If this could happen to Joe, how vulnerable are the rest of us?” was a common theme. Those of us who live this post-service life as catastrophically injured or wounded soldiers know one thing. This life is hard for us and the military, the VA, and the government make it even harder.
When I arrived at the Best Ranger Competition in April this year, a number of senior leaders came up to me and asked, “How could we lose Joe Kap?” I was shocked. How do you not know how bad this life sucks for us? Who’s monitoring or checking on our guys who are catastrophically [expletive] for life due to their service to our nation? The answer is, for the most part, no one is monitoring us, no one is advocating for us, and at every turn, obstacles are created by the bureaucrats within our government, the VA, and Tricare.
I don’t know what the final straw was for Joe, but just from the nightmare I have been living for the last 3.5 years, I understand how this can happen. It’s the reason I don’t keep a pistol in my home, it’s my personal risk management. I operate at a high level despite being a polytrauma amputee with spinal cord injuries. Regardless of my ongoing personal nightmare, I still teach, coach, and mentor disabled athletes and veterans and compete for U.S. Special Operations Command. I have to; or the hell the U.S. government, the VA, and Tricare have put me through and continue to put me through would make me go down that same path Joe went down.
I’ll summarize my last 3.5 years as a little taste of what life is like for me and my fellow catastrophically injured Rangers. I was at the Center for the Intrepid undergoing a decade’s worth of major surgeries in 18 months with a follow-on six-month rehabilitation from 2018 to 2020. I had my left leg amputated, my second right knee replacement done and was about to start my three spinal and shoulder replacement surgeries when COVID hit. At the time in April 2020, I was in a wheelchair 24/7 due to a post-surgical LCL [lateral collateral ligament] injury to my new knee and since lockdown was on, I was told to literally “sit tight”. That’s when I got the call from an admin person at Eglin Air Force Base [AFB] Hospital in Florida telling me she was stopping my funding as of the next day, against doctors’ recommendations.
I had a 12-hour notice that my $4,000 a month Airbnb was not going to be paid during a national lockdown and global pandemic. This was year three of a six-year full-body rebuild and I was thrown under the bus when I was wheelchair-bound with medically necessary surgeries scheduled. I couldn’t even get back home to Florida at the time, there was a lockdown, and I had a trailer full of stuff that I had brought to San Antonio for our two-year stay. This was a dark time; bankruptcy was a real possibility because my wife had quit her job to come to CFI with me to be my caregiver; and of course, the VA denied her caregiver status. I was despondent because, after a dozen phone calls, I was basically told that the single horrible person at Eglin AFB Hospital had total control of my life. Another reason I don’t keep pistols in my home.
As fate would have it, I got an email the next day about working a federal COVID job, so I took it, no questions asked when they said I could work from a wheelchair. I left my wife during lockdown in San Antonio and headed to Nevada via Columbus Ohio to set up and run an FDA/FEMA COVID site. Two months later, the job took me back to Columbus and I had made enough to pay our Airbnb bills, pay to have our place packed up in Florida, and rent a small cabin in the woods to wait out COVID in Ohio. Once again, I pulled off the miracle and took care of everything myself, from a wheelchair.
After the FEMA contract ended, I applied for unemployment for the first time in my life. I was turned down because I hadn’t worked for a couple of years because I was in my body rebuild phase. More phone calls, more nothing. I had an opportunity to bid on a property at auction, so I took the chance because I had an amputee grant to make my home accessible, something I never had. So, I bid on a small farm in northwest Ohio and won the auction. This was November 2020, I started demoing the house and searching for contractors but due to COVID, there was a two-year backlog. Since I couldn’t find a contractor, the VA would not let me use my $100,000 construction grant and refused to make an exception to the policy when everyone in the country was getting exceptions and handouts. So, now I had to use my own money to make my house livable for a wheelchair-bound amputee, eating quickly into my life’s savings.
In the meantime, my fibula was poking out the end of my residual limb and I needed amputee care but couldn’t get to CFI due to COVID. I was forced to go to the VA for amputee care. That worked so well, I spent the summer and fall in a wheelchair with no leg… but the VA did send me a new seat cushion for my wheelchair. Eventually, I had my re-amputation done at Ohio State by a former USSOCOM surgeon and also spent the summer of 2022 in a wheelchair. I got more good news five months after my re-amputation, Tricare wasn’t paying my medical or prosthetic care bills. So, now 15 months later, I had creditors and bill collectors calling about the $150,000 Tricare hasn’t paid for my 2022 care.
I still have ZERO forward progress from the VA despite reaching out to members of Congress, USSOCOM, and VA social workers. I was told to seek out charities by the VA if I needed help while they still held hostage over $100,000 of my construction funds. I currently still live in a non-accessible construction zone. I have to repair my own prosthetic legs because Tricare still hasn’t paid my bills & I have multiple surgeries I need that I’m not getting because of this debacle. These are just some of the reasons I don’t keep a pistol in my home. It isn’t because of PTSD, depression, or anything else except this carnival ride that is veteran’s health care. It is horrible, demeaning, slow, and never in the veteran’s best interest. It is a stain on this nation.
Like I said earlier, I don’t know why Joe Kap took his own life, but I can understand why. It has taken all of my cognitive and mental abilities to keep myself from the same outcome, and I have been getting screwed since day one of my medical retirement in 2005. The system is designed to kill us. They push horrible medications on us and dangle “carrots” in our faces like adaptive equipment and construction grants then, bam. The carrot is gone and we are left with empty promises. I’m alive today, not because of military or VA medicine, I’m here in spite of it. I’m too stubborn and proud to let these subhumans take me down.
There’s a sad old saying in The Regiment, “The Regiment eats its own.” I can attest to that, and it should be applied even more to our catastrophically injured Rangers. The saying is sad enough on its own, but even more sad when you realize nothing is being done about it. The SEAL Teams and Marines have their own organizations that make up for this problem. These organizations even issue adaptive equipment, assist with adaptive housing issues, and provide training, advocacy, and assistance for anything the VA or Tricare doesn’t provide. Or they expedite the slow process that is the military medical system.
So why do we not have the same for members of a unit that is U.S. Special Operations Command’s high-value target workhorse? The solution can be seen if you look at what Team Semper Fi & America’s Fund do for their people; and in many cases, our Rangers, including me. Yes, you heard that correctly, the Marine Corps helps out catastrophically injured Rangers when the VA, Tricare, and The Regiment fail to act. This should be a point of embarrassment for The Regiment and senior leadership. If the 75th Ranger Regiment isn’t looking out for or even just advocating for those who’ve paid the highest costs for their elite service, then who is?
No one—that’s who.
This article was originally published in The Havok Journal.
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