Joey Bryan can’t sleep. He can’t drive a car. He can barely ride in one. Crowds are out of the question.
“I can’t be out in the open, because I feel vulnerable,” Bryan said. “I feel like somebody’s watching me. I can’t mow the grass. I can’t do household chores. I can’t take out the trash, because the stench retriggers the dead smell.”
The “dead smell” is a flashback to rotting corpses strewn along the battlefields of Iraq, where Bryan did two tours as a member of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. During his first tour, in 2003, the tank in which Bryan was riding was squared up by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Technically, he survived, but he hasn’t been able to do much living.
Bryan, who resides in Brandon with his wife and two daughters, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury shortly after he retired from the Army in 2012. He’s been fired from every job he’s had since, almost always within weeks of starting.
At a supplier to West Point, Ga.’s, KIA plant, he worked on the assembly line. More than once, a sudden noise ignited his reflex to hit the deck and yell for others to take cover. He lasted a month.
The same thing happened at an automotive manufacturer supplier in a similar job in Columbus, Ga., and another in Opelika, Ala.
His last job, at a Lowe’s in Gautier, ended in March 2014. “There was a customer who wanted help with paint, and I’m not a paint expert,” Bryan said. “I told him that and that I would go get somebody who could help him. He said, ‘Are you (expletive) stupid?’ and got up in my face. I felt threatened so I grabbed him around the neck.” His employment there ended that day.
Bryan doesn’t blame his superiors at any of those places. They all worked with him as much as they could, he said, until they figured out he just couldn’t function within the guidelines of safe and acceptable behavior. “They tried,” Bryan said. “They really did. I’m not lazy. I’ve tried to work.”
That employment history is one of the reasons his doctors at the G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Jackson, and the state Department of Rehabilitation Services, have categorized Bryan as 100% disabled, a designation that makes him unemployable. As a result, Bryan receives disability payments from the VA that total about $2,800 monthly.
The law and his diagnosed medical condition also entitle him to disability income from the Social Security Administration. His experience with that agency has been less than pleasant, Bryan and his attorneys say.
His initial application was denied, which is anything but uncommon, said Sam Montgomery, who is now in private practice representing disability applicants — Bryan is one of his clients — after spending three decades as a Social Security Administration administrative law judge. He estimates 75% of initial applications are rejected, then appealed under a procedure called reconsideration, which Montgomery described as “the people in the next cubicle reviewing the decision their co-workers made.” He estimated 95% of reconsiderations are affirmed.
After that, applicants ask a SSA administrative law judge — a position Montgomery once had — to review the case and render a ruling.
Bryan made those appeals and was rejected at every step.
It starts with Bryan’s 100% disability and 100% unemployability rating, Montgomery said. Every disability applicant is assigned a percentage, one that applies to the extent of whatever disability they claim and another to their fitness for work.
Anything 30% or above in either category is considered a legitimate claim and is often, but not always, approved eventually, Montgomery said. Applicants with 100% in both are usually approved in the second round, sometimes slipping into the 25% of approvals Montgomery estimated happen with the initial application, he said.
“But I’ve never seen somebody with 100% in both denied” at all three turns, he said. “Especially someone who’s a war veteran and whose injuries are entirely because of them fighting in a war.”
SSA statistics show that in 2011, 28.6% of applicants were eventually awarded disability benefits. That was the lowest award rate in a 20-year period.
The decision by the SSA’s Appeals Council to deny Bryan’s application exhausts his options with that agency. The only remaining remedy is to appeal the matter to federal court. Bryan, Montgomery and his other attorney, Shirley Payne, have done that, filing papers on April 30 in U.S. District Court for Mississippi’s Southern District. That appeal is pending. An SSA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on active cases.
The SSA is not bound by the VA’s medical findings, Payne said, though it can be used as evidence.
“There is policy being affected here,” Payne said. “This is not just a case of one judge making a bad decision.”
While his appeal sits in federal court, Bryan says he manages the symptoms of his PTSD and TBI as best he can with medication and by avoiding activities and situations that trigger outbursts.
It isn’t easy. “Every night my wife asks me if I’m ready for bed I say, ‘No, I’m afraid I’m going to hurt you in my sleep,'” Bryan said. He’s woken up from nightmares — something Bryan says he has nearly every night — and exploded, tearing through his house and breaking everything his hands touch.
“If the public knew what I did, I feel like they’d be disgusted,” Bryan continued. “I feel like I’m here, but I don’t feel like I’m here. I always have images in my head.”
One of the most common is the reliving of a patrol that went badly wrong. The Humvee in front of Bryan’s struck an improvised explosive device. Bryan opened one of the doors and half of a sergeant dropped out. “His bottom portion just fell into my arms,” Bryan said. “It’s hard to live with. I take medication, which really doesn’t work. I’m always on guard at home. I check doors over and over. I always feel threatened.”
Of his denials by the SSA, Bryan says they “were like a slap in the face.”
“I wish I could teleport those people back to 2003 so they could see what happened over there. I feel like I didn’t get a fair shake.”
Bryan especially bristles at part of the order denying his appeal that implies he’s an alcoholic. Administrative law judge Jim Fraiser wrote that Bryan’s anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings and unpredictable behavior have been “exacerbated by alcohol abuse.” Bryan, in an interview in his lawyers’ office, forcefully denied that he has a problem with alcohol. “It’s really offensive to me,” Bryan said. “I’m not an alcoholic and I wasn’t at the time. I was self-medicating. I wasn’t drinking to have fun. I was blocking all the feelings of the stress, the nightmares. I even volunteered to go to rehab so I could focus on my PTSD. It helped me to kind of face my PTSD head-on.”
Said Montgomery: “They got a lot of demons going on and they’re trying to feel better, but that had apparently been addressed. That was not what was keeping the guy from working.”
Alex Vitek knows the struggle. A former Air Force medic who spent most of 2007 in Afghanistan, Vitek spent the years after that in and out of employment and various PTSD and alcohol treatment programs. His climb out of rock bottom landed him at Camp Hope, a residential treatment program for veterans operated by the Houston, Texas-based PTSD Foundation of America.
“It’s a spiritual wound as well as a mental wound,” Vitek said. “We’re stuck at that level where our adrenaline is pumping and the switch gets broken and doesn’t turn off.” Vitek worked his way through Camp Hope and now serves as its program director. The treatment curriculum is similar to the one Alcoholics Anonymous uses — a stair-stepped process that starts with admitting there’s a problem and working to fix it.
For now, Bryan is in a holding pattern, the uncertainty contributing, he says, to his anxiety. “I’ve put my family through a lot. I have faith in the system, but not as much as I once did.”
Percentage of 100% disabled veterans who are approved for Social Security disability benefits:
• Initial claim: 52%
• Reconsideration: 16%
• Administrative hearing: 74%
• Overall: 73%