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Charities Fill Gap In Providing Support For Military Veterans


More than 40,000 charities across the country are set up to help military veterans. The charities provide wheelchairs, service dogs, alternative medicine, even new homes. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spends a lot of money taking care of vets, and it's asking Congress for $180 billion next year. So NPR's Quil Lawrence set out to learn why veterans even need these charities.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: If anyone gets a full ride from the VA, you'd expect it to be Visnu Gonzales. He went to Iraq twice as a U.S. Marine. The invasion in 2003 was easy compared to his second tour in Fallujah.

VISNU GONZALES: That was chaotic. That was just a firefight every day.

LAWRENCE: That tour cost him. A sniper shot him in the spine, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Normally he gets around on a motorized wheelchair. Right now he's laid up with pressure sores which he's trying not to get depressed about.

GONZALES: I'm OK. I'm fine. I don't think too much about that because then I'll go crazy.

LAWRENCE: And he's pretty well set up. He takes courses online. He lives with his wife and his mom in New Jersey. They've got a fully wheelchair-accessible house, a lift for his van. In the garage are four wheelchairs - two electric, two manual. But the VA paid for almost none of that.

MARIA ELENA BAEZ: This was gifted by friends of West Chester Hills but through Independence Fund.

LAWRENCE: Gonzales's mother, Maria Elena Baez, is his full-time caregiver.

BAEZ: I'm going to talk to you while this call comes on...

LAWRENCE: Yeah, of course, of course.

BAEZ: ...OK?

LAWRENCE: The whole time I visited, she was on hold, working through red tape. And this is more than a decade after Visnu was shot.

BAEZ: Hi, Kaela. I am calling on behalf of my son, Corporal Visnu Gonzales.

LAWRENCE: Sitting in his garage is one very nice electric wheelchair from the VA. But the all-terrain chair and the one that can rise up to eye level and even climb stairs - the VA won't always foot the bill for that kind of thing, says Phil Carter with the Center for a New American Security.

PHIL CARTER: The statutes and regulations for the VA essentially make those judgments about the line between what's necessary or even in some cases what's good and what is extravagant.

LAWRENCE: Carter is an Iraq vet and has advised the Hillary Clinton campaign on vet's issues. He says VA was never supposed to be a blank check, more like a special kind of workman's comp.

CARTER: And at some point Congress and the president over the years have made a judgment about how generous they want that compensation system to be.

LAWRENCE: Carter says charities step up to fill the gaps, not always perfectly, not always with the exact right focus but well enough. Carter co-authored a study of veterans' charities called "Charting The Sea Of Goodwill." What he found worried him.

CARTER: There has been no post-9/11 surge in giving to veterans' causes, no surge around the time of the Iraq war, no surge around the time of the Walter Reed scandal. The revenue trend in this sector has been completely flat.

LAWRENCE: It might be that people just assume the VA has veterans covered. Carter says much of the giving comes from traditional veterans organizations, and their membership is getting older. Whatever the reason, the concern for vets you hear from politicians and at football games and on social media isn't matched with dollars, Carter says, and that's bad news for Visnu Gonzales and his family.

BAEZ: Cooking.

LAWRENCE: They're fine right now. Something delicious is simmering in the kitchen, and his mom has just gotten off the phone after hours, trying to get a medical issue fixed.

BAEZ: And it wasn't resolved (laughter).

LAWRENCE: It wasn't resolved. How many hours a day do you spend on the phone?

BAEZ: Oh, a lot.

LAWRENCE: Before this, she owned a real estate company. She was a successful business woman. Now she's his full-time caregiver with a modest stipend from the VA. Visnu Gonzales is 33 and hoping to start a family soon. His mother, Maria Elena, knows he's going to be needing help for decades to come.

BAEZ: This is a miracle, and this is a survival story. And I know there are many other guys that are not so lucky to have what my son has. But definitely life's changed drastically for the worse, you know? We are making up the best of what we've been given.

LAWRENCE: The VA will take care of the basics, but to have a good life, Maria Elena says she'll probably always need what's given by what she calls the beautiful people in nonprofits and charities. With veterans' needs increasing, that giving might not keep up. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.