As Americans celebrate Armed Forces Day on May 21, many will reflect on the unique camaraderie that exists between men and women who serve in the military.
Last week veteran Jared Meader of Vineyard Haven experienced that “band of brothers” bond first-hand when fellow veterans Tom Rancich and Elliott Adler stepped up with a $5,000 loan to stop foreclosure proceedings on his home.
Mr. Meader and his wife Julie built their home in Vineyard Haven eight years ago. Their four children range in age from 19 months to 10 years old. Over the last several months the couple got behind in their mortgage payments when Mr. Meader was unable to work while waiting for a disability rating from the Veterans Administration (VA) after treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Mr. Meader shared his frustration and despair about possibly losing his home at a recent veterans’ support group meeting run by Tom Bennett, the associate executive director and senior clinical advisor at the Island Counseling Center.
Afterwards, Mr. Rancich pulled Mr. Meader aside and said he would talk to his business partner about helping the Meaders out.
“Tom said, hey, this isn’t charity; we all hit hard times, and I’m not going to see another veteran lose his house,” Mr. Meader recalled.
Mr. Rancich is a U.S. Navy veteran who spent part of his career as a SEAL dealing with disposal of unexploded bombs. He and his business partner Elliott Adler met in the Navy as classmates in explosive ordnance school.
After retirement from their military careers, Mr. Rancich and Mr. Adler started their own company, VRHabilis, in 2007. The “VR” stands for “veteran run,” and “habilis” is Latin for “work.”
Mr. Rancich said after he left the veterans’ support group meeting, he shared Mr. Meader’s story with his partner.
“Why don’t we help?” Mr. Adler immediately responded.
“I went to Jared and told him, we’re not a mega-corporation, but we’ll be damned if we’ll see you and your wife and kids put on the street for $5,000,” Mr. Rancich said. “And what we’d like to do is extend to you a loan for that amount, get you current, get the bank off your back and allow you to have a little breathing room, so you can have a chance to succeed.”
On May 5 he put a cashier’s check for $5,000 in Mr. Meader’s hands. The next day Mr. Meader paid his back mortgage payments to Bank of America and put a halt to foreclosure proceedings scheduled for May 18.
“I think that if I had not known Jared through Tom’s group, that would have been an impossible offer to make,” Mr. Rancich said. “But since we’ve sat there and cried at the table together, I was able to make the offer, and he was able to accept it in the vein that I was extending it, which was look, you’re a brother in arms, and one of our company’s core values is to try to help out disabled veterans.”
Challenges for returning vets
Mr. Meader and Mr. Rancich stopped by The Times office last week to share their story. Mr. Meader said he didn’t mind going public with it, in the hope that it would bring to light the problems that some returning veterans face, especially those with disabilities.
“One of my soap box issues, and this is repeated throughout our history, is the country is perfectly willing to go to war without an appropriate safety net for the guys coming back,” Mr. Rancich said. “And you just see an enormous divorce rate, an enormous alcoholism rate, and an enormous suicide rate because civilians are of the opinion that you have to have fought in the Battle of the Bulge or something like that to have post-traumatic stress.”
VRHabilis provides military range management, remediation, and emergency response. The company is currently under contract to help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its survey and cleanup of World War II-era munitions from former practice sites along Martha’s Vineyard’s south shore.
Mr. Rancich and Mr. Adler share a kinship with disabled vets, since both of them qualified for that category from injuries during their years of service.
Mr. Rancich broke his neck and back in a helicopter crash in 1997. He said that because of superior care he received from therapists on the SEAL team, he was able to continue to serve out his 20 years.
“So one of our company’s goals is to take guys with traumatic brain injuries or missing limbs and use adaptive technologies or adaptive strategies to employ them in fields that they want to work,” Mr. Rancich said.
A downward spiral
A series of difficult and unfortunate circumstances led to the threat of foreclosure on the Meaders’ home. Mr. Meader served 18 years in the Massachusetts National Guard. When he returned to Martha’s Vineyard in June 2010 after a second tour of duty in Iraq, he looked forward to resuming the life he left, at home with his family and at work as a sergeant with the sheriff’s department in the Dukes County Jail and House of Correction.
In the weeks that followed, however, Mr. Meader began to struggle with PTSD and depression. He also suffered pain and physical disability from a shoulder injury he sustained in his first tour of duty in Iraq and reinjured in his second tour.
Mr. Meader was unable to take antidepressants, and also ran out of his other medication. At that point, he said, “I spiraled out of control and had a breakdown in January.”
Although he returned to work for a few more weeks afterwards, Mr. Meader resigned his position on February 25. As a result, he was ineligible for unemployment, and his shoulder disability limited his options for other work. With the addition of financial pressures, Mr. Meader said he became severely depressed and had thoughts of suicide.
Since his return from Iraq, Mr. Meader had regularly attended the veterans’ support group meetings run by Mr. Bennett.
“I showed up one night at group, and Tom [Bennett] noticed something was wrong and asked me to see him,” Mr. Meader said. “We started talking and he saw how depressed I was. Before I realized it, I was in an ambulance and on my way to the veterans’ hospital in Providence.”
From there, Mr. Meader entered a six-week intensive PTSD program at the Northampton VA Hospital, with Mr. Bennett’s help.
On his return home on April 12, Mr. Meader said his family’s finances ran out all at once. Although his wife Julie works full-time for Edgartown National Bank and he receives some money from the VA, it wasn’t enough to cover their expenses, and they fell behind five months on their mortgage payments.
“It became literally a matter of, do we pay the mortgage this month, or buy food?” Mr. Meader said. At one point he sold all the firearms he had collected over many years to buy groceries.
“We have family, and they’ve been helping out as much as they can, but it’s hard times for everybody,” Mr. Meader said.
Although he had filed a 100-percent disability claim application with the VA, he had not received a percentage rating yet. Someone with a 100-percent military service-connected disability may in turn apply for Social Security disability.
“I don’t know what percentage rating I’ll get, but most likely I won’t be allowed to work and will get Social Security,” Mr. Meader said. “Or, I may be limited to working at the national poverty level. At 100-percent disability with the number of kids I have, I could earn an additional $22,000. But until we know what the VA says, I can’t do anything.”
Once he receives his disability rating, Mr. Meader said he hopes to obtain re-education training through the VA to achieve his goal to be a locksmith.
No safety net
Mr. Meader said he contacted the Bank of America and explained his situation every month that he missed a mortgage payment. He asked if some arrangement could be worked out until May 5, the date the VA said his disability rating would come through.
“They said they would put a note in my file in the computer,” Mr. Meader said. However, about two weeks ago, the Meaders received a notice from BOA that foreclosure proceedings would proceed on May 18 if their mortgage payments were not paid in full.
In the meantime, Mr. Meader said, Dukes County Director of Veterans’ Services Jo Ann Murphy made many calls and did a lot of research to try to find a program to provide a financial safety net for him and his family.
“There are a lot of programs people say are out there, but most are to help military personnel while they’re serving on active duty,” Ms. Murphy said. She also found that other state or Federal programs that might have helped the Meaders had stringent income limitations that disqualified them, despite their financial struggles.
Mr. Meader said that now that he and his wife are current on their mortgage, Bank of America personnel offered to work with them to lower their monthly payments based on their ratio of debt to income. The difference will be tacked on to mortgage payments in later years.
“What Tom Rancich did was huge,” Mr. Meader said. “It’s hard to stand there and ask another guy for help. He made the offer, and I said let me see what happens with the VA.”
When his disability rating did not come through from the VA on May 5 and he accepted the money, Mr. Meader said, “It didn’t feel like charity; it felt like he was a friend helping a friend out.”