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Soldier's Violations Leads to Victory


With a Shot Part II

Matt and Robyn Burgess are battle-hardened. For more than four years, they have gone toe-to-to with the U.S. government fighting for the benefits Matt earned as a Reservist who was permanently disabled in service to his country. Unlike so many other soldiers with life-altering injuries, Matt’s wounds are invisible. After his third anthrax vaccination, Matt went from a healthy 31-year-old to a man plagued with a range of symptoms that destroyed his physical health.

By spring 2007, they’d gotten the diagnosis they needed from Army medical staff to validate their claims. They were finally getting medical treatment from several doctors from multiple health care systems to meet the Army’s demand for proper documentation. But they still hadn’t gotten what they both knew Matt deserved: permanent medical retirement with full benefits to ensure they’d always be able to meet Matt’s medical needs.

They continued to struggle financially and try to break through the red tape that continually blocked them. They started writing their local representatives, as well as lawmakers with reputations for defending veterans.

“We got responses saying you’re not our constituent, call your local congressman or senator,” Robyn said. “We’d sent stuff to John McCain and some of the other people we thought would be interested in hearing his story. We couldn’t get our letters read.”

So the couple decided it was time for their story to be read. The Washington Post had recently run an expose of a series of problems at Walter Reed. Because Matt was mostly isolated from other soldiers and didn’t stay in the moldy barracks that were part of the subject of the expose, he didn’t realize that his troubles at Walter Reed were not unique. He and Robin also took issue with the proffered solution of contracting out more work at the hospital to improve patient care; Matt had been victimized by a contract worker, not a fellow soldier.

They were also desperate.

“We were selling everything we could sell. We needed help. We needed attention. We needed somebody to care,” Robyn said. “One case is not newsworthy. A bunch of cases is newsworthy ... When we found out how others have been treated, we realized they needed to know about this, too.”

They started calling reporters in hopes that publicity of their plight would finally bring action in the wake of other scandals at Walter Reed.

The story of Matt’s sexual assault hit the front page of the Washington Post on April 7. One month later, Matt’s benefit checks finally started coming in. Two months later, he learned he would be retired permanently with full medical benefits.

Silver Linings

The Burgesses are convinced that the publicity of Matt’s assault is the reason they finally triumphed.

“After it got published, all of a sudden, we’re getting phone calls saying, ‘What can we do, what can we do? We’ll do whatever we need to do for you,’ ” Robyn said. “It sure was a coincidence, to say the least.”

Matt agreed.

“Until that point, it was just kinda like, you’re just another story. It’s sad that you have to have a scandal and that we had to use a scandal to get results,” Matt said. “That’s just disheartening. I feel bad for the soldiers that don’t have the scandals when all other resources have been used, how do they get help?”

Matt and Robyn now find themselves in the role of helper. They’re working with about six soldiers to help them navigate the system and pursue their claims.

“I also try to find the balance of helping someone win their case and being the listening ear,” he said. “It feels good that now I have this success behind it. We try to help anybody we can, and that’s a balance of your own personal life also. Robyn is a huge part of that.”

This in addition to Matt’s week of college classes at a community college in Dalton more than an hour from their Dallas, Ga., home. Their long term goal is to start a veterans’ retreat and marina to help other families heal. They recently attended a program at Syracuse University designed to teach disabled veterans how to launch businesses. It’s part of the stages of developing their vision of offering other veterans a place to relax, recharge and reconnect.

“If we do get this campground retreat off the ground, we can really make a difference. If we sit here and stay angry, it’s just not gonna get us anywhere,” Matt said.

Moving Forward

Their marriage also has suffered severe strain, but they managed to grow together rather than apart as debts, frustrations and side effects continued to pile up.

“It’s been through the grace of God, I guess,” Robyn said. “We have gone to a lot of counseling individually, and we’ve gone to some marriage retreats.”

Matt received some counseling from Walter Reed following his sexual assault, but he also credits Robyn’s devotion and determination for their relationship’s survival.

“We’re pretty proud of that. It’s been a lot of hard work. It hasn’t been easy,” he said. “Today, we’re glad that we’re still here. We’re not just another statistic. There’s tons of them out there.”

That’s why they’re determined to focus on the positives that have emerged from their struggle.

“A lot of good things have happened out of it,” Robyn said. “It’s difficult to be married to somebody who’s chronically ill. I think he’s a better person in the long run. Not physically, but mentally he’s definitely a better person. That’s how we choose to look at it.”