Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Andrew Connolly, Dubuque, IA
First off, I would like to thank Chairman Stutzman and Ranking Member Braley for holding this important hearing today.
My name is Andrew Connolly. I currently reside at 2820 Illinois Avenue in Dubuque, Iowa. I served in the United States Army National Guard from November, 2000 to August, 2007. During my time of service I completed two tours. The first tour took place in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt from May, 2003 to January, 2004. The second tour of duty was a combat mission in the Al Anbar Province, Iraq from October, 2005 to August, 2007. Our mission in Iraq was convoy security. During the 16 months in Iraq, my unit transported goods to most all of the western allied bases. Our largest enemy threats were the improvised explosive devices (IED’s). I personally encountered many IED’s near my vehicle, and experienced one direct hit, which took place on March 9, 2007. The blast report from the explosive ordinance disposal team verified it to be a pressure plate land mine with approximately 15 pounds of PE4. My team and I suffered minor injuries and concussions from the blast.
After completing my tour in Iraq, I immediately returned to work and enrolled in school. I tolerated wear and tear on the body figuring that the pains and weird feelings would go away. After serving in Iraq, my disability ratings varied for different parts of my body. My back and knees bothered me quite a bit while in Iraq, which is documented in my medical files. A little over a year after my return, I noticed numbness in my right foot. I thought that I had just tweaked something in my back due to the injuries that had occurred while overseas.
After a couple of months of having this irritating numbness, I consulted with the VA Hospital in Iowa City and they ordered an MRI right away. Following the MRI the neurologist suggested that I come in for a consultation the next week. It was early February, 2009 and I was struck with some devastating news. The neurology doctor at the VA closed the door behind him and proceeded to tell me that I had a slow growing, small mass located within my spinal cord and he was 90 percent sure it was malignant. A spinal cord biopsy was scheduled for two weeks later. The results came back positive for cancer and treatment options were offered. At this time I had a million things rushing through my mind, the first being, “How long do I have?” Next was, “How am I going to get through this financially?” The neurologist reported that the tumor was service-connected, and most likely contributed to the pain and discomfort I suffered while on active duty.
At the time, I owned a top-bottom duplex built in 1890. Fortunately, my family and I occupied the lower unit. Unfortunately, it was not handicapped-accessible. My condition rapidly deteriorated and complicated our family situation. My son Brody was born on July 31, 2008, with a neuromuscular disorder called congenital myasthenic syndrome. This disorder affects all of my son’s muscles, thus causing dependence on a ventilator 24 hours a day. He too will need to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
I started radiation and followed up with chemotherapy. I am still taking chemotherapy and probably will until I can no longer tolerate it or I move on. As the year 2009 went on, the right side of my body slowly lost feeling. By the time 2010 came around, my left side began to lose feeling, as well. As my body began to dwindle from the nipples down, I investigated military grants for paralyzed veterans. I came across the Specially Adaptive Housing grant and applied for it. I was denied the grant because I was still able to walk at that time. Doctor reports stated that this type of cancer would leave me paralyzed and no cure existed. I was diagnosed with grade 2/3 anaplastic astrocytoma cancer of the spine. This still did not qualify me for the grant. My legs started to give out on me and I tripped quite often. A wheelchair-bound life was creeping into the picture quite rapidly. My frustration with the VA grew immeasurably and I felt trapped, fighting a losing battle. I was 26, married, and had a beautiful, handicapped child to support. My life spiraled downward. I fit the grant criteria to a “T”. Ironically my minimal ability to walk kept it beyond my grasp.
For 7 years, military leaders preached to us, “Prepare, prepare, prepare!” That is exactly what I was trying to do. I was hoping to get the grant paperwork started early so that when the time came and a wheelchair became a permanent part of my life I would be ready. At this time I was unable to afford a proper handicapped-accessible house for my family. In April of 2010, I called Ray Zirklebach, who served with me in both Egypt and Iraq. Ray, an Iowa House Representative in the neighboring county, listened to my story. He too thought something should be done about this situation. He forwarded my email on to Congressman Bruce Braley, who quickly turned around my application paperwork. Within two weeks of contacting Representative Ray Zirklebach and Congressman Bruce Braley, I was approved for the grant and a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.
With the grant approved, I was able to build a house that would be suitable for my family. Construction on our new house began on June 21, 2010, the same time I became wheelchair-bound. Life in our duplex during the construction of the new house was quite miserable, but temporarily manageable.
In August of 2010, I officially became a paraplegic, losing all use, function and feeling below the nipples. At this point, the neurologist decided it was time to try to remove as much of the tumor and spinal cord as possible in an attempt to prolong my life. The surgery itself went perfectly, however, the surgeons were not able to remove the entire tumor without causing me to become a quadriplegic or have respiratory complications. With paralysis, I fell deeper and deeper into depression. The list of tasks that I was able to do around the duplex grew shorter and shorter.
I became so reliant on my wife and others to help me accomplish simple tasks. Taking a shower, for instance, became an hour long duty that required an extra set of hands and an awkward plastic bench that offered terrible support. I lost all control of bowel and bladder, which made it impossible for me to use the bathroom in my own apartment. Since the duplex was built in 1890, all the doorways and hallways were narrow and produced a knuckle rubbing experience every time I moved to a different room. Cooking, doing the dishes, and even maneuvering around the kitchen became difficult. Life in the duplex was unbearable.
Today I am in my new house. Today I took a shower by myself in a 5’ x 5’ roll in shower with handicapped controls. Today I cooked my own breakfast because I could reach all of the ingredients. Today I was able to watch my son Brody sleeping in his bedroom because I could roll through his doorway with my wheelchair. Today, I am praying for all soldiers and veterans, that they may have the support and dignity they deserve, without having to jump through hoops, or have a friend in politics. I am where I am today because I had advocates, not because I will ultimately die young as a result of serving the country I love.
Thank you again for holding this hearing. It is my hope the adaptive housing grants program can be extended so that our brave soldiers get the assistance they deserve, so they can live as self-sufficiently as possible.