May 19, 2020
In the trip of a wire, former Army Specialist Justin Elmer’s life changed forever.
He can still hear the snap and then the blast of an improved explosive device detonating under his vehicle during a convoy in Afghanistan. The force of the explosion slammed Elmer’s head into the roof, knocking him momentarily unconscious. When he woke up, his head pounded and his neck and back were stiff. His vehicle was mangled.
Elmer never served another military mission. That was 11 years ago.
Today, Elmer, who lives outside Warsaw, Missouri, has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He is considered 100% disabled by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, thanks to the assistance of the Veterans Clinic at the University of Missouri School of Law, which is staffed by law students and overseen by professional lawyers.
While Elmer is grateful for his disability compensation, he’d like one more thing from his country: a Purple Heart. For this battle, he turned again to Mizzou for support.
“It’s affected me emotionally, physically and mentally,” Elmer said. “I’ll never be the same.”
Because of his diagnoses, Elmer, a single-parent of two teenage sons, can no longer work as a welder. His hands and head shake uncontrollably, his balance is off and he suffers from headaches and debilitating back and neck pain, not to mention PTSD, which makes him prone to low moods and irritability.
Brent Filbert, an attorney with the MU Veterans Clinic, who has assisted Elmer with his VA benefits, has taken a special interest in Elmer’s fight for a Purple Heart, which is awarded to members of the armed forced who are wounded or killed at the hands of the enemy. Twice Filbert has assisted Elmer in applying to the Awards and Decorations Branch of the U.S. Army – once with the help of a St. Louis attorney – and twice the Army has denied their request, even with depositions from every soldier who was on the mission that day.
The sticking point: the Army claims there is no documented proof that Elmer’s TBI is the direct result of enemy action in June 2009. They say his diagnosis was made too long after the incident. The MU Veterans Clinic is assisting Elmer in appealing the Army’s decision, but a response could take up to two years or more because of the backlog, Filbert said.
“Meanwhile, Justin Elmer still has all these problems related to his injuries and wonders why he can’t get a Purple Heart,” said Filbert, who served 30 years an attorney in the Navy. “It’s different from our usual cases, but ultimately, our mission is to train law students and assist veterans who have served our nation, and that’s what we’re doing with Justin.”
Since the clinic launched in 2014, it has assisted more than 700 veterans and their families, and nearly 110 law students have been educated in veterans law. During the past five years, MU students and staff have been quite successful, securing more than $5 million in VA disability compensation payments.
Five students have worked on the Elmer case, which isn’t the first to involve helping a veteran secure a military medal, Filbert said. The clinic is also helping another veteran receive a Bronze Star Medal, which is awarded to military members for heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone. In both cases, the mission is to help a veteran attain official military recognition for an “extraordinarily special” act on behalf of his or her country.
“Our students benefit from working on Justin’s case because it teaches them to gather, analyze and present evidence for a client in an important matter,” he said.
In Elmer’s case, Filbert believes there is plenty of medical documentation that links the former soldier’s TBI to the IED explosion, and there is no other explanation for the TBI. Plus, the military’s own exhaustive records show a progression of Elmer’s symptoms, beginning shortly after the incident.
“Besides that, it is against all the science about TBIs,” Filbert said. “TBIs don’t necessarily show up in two or three hours after an incident. Sometimes, it takes much longer.”
Filbert learned of Elmer’s desire for a Purple Heart while working with him to secure disability benefits. Some paperwork had already been done, but it was tangled in bureaucracy. Once he reassembled the information and resubmitted the application, Filbert was convinced Elmer was a shoe-in for this prestigious recognition.
“There was no question in my mind that we had done everything we needed to do to assure Justin would get a Purple Heart,” he said. “I thought it would be an easy decision.”
Purple Heart recipients are given the highest priority access to medical care and relieved of paying any copays for VA medical treatment or hospitalization. They also are entitled to Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits at 100% benefit level for up to 36 months.
For Elmer, the Army’s point of contention in his application for a Purple Heart is the time-lapse between the IED explosion and Elmer’s official medical diagnosis of TBI.
Within an hour of the explosion, an Army medic – not a doctor – conducted a screening test called the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation, or MACE, on Elmer in the field. MACE is a standardized mental status exam that is used to evaluate mild TBI or concussion, in a combat or deployed setting. Elmer barely passed.
After that, Elmer remained off duty to convalesce. Still, he remained with his company in the Afghanistan desert for more than two months. It wasn’t until early September when Elmer’s company rejoined the rest of his battalion in Bamberg, Germany, that he finally saw a doctor.
By then, his symptoms had progressed to headaches, tremors, vertigo, sleep disturbances, balance issues as well as problems with paying attention, concentrating and performing executive functions, such as problem-solving, judgement and decision making. Military doctors in Germany determined that the blast had caused Elmer to suffer a concussion, a herniated disc and a TBI – a diagnosis later confirmed by a board-certified neurosurgeon in Columbia, who examined Elmer per Filbert’s recommendation.
Filbert said TBIs are relatively new because military equipment is more durable, causing more soldiers to survive blasts that in the past, would have been fatal. About 25% of veterans who come to the MU Veterans Clinic have been diagnosed with a TBI.
“Today, soldiers survive, but their brains are damaged,” Filbert said.
Elmer credits Filbert and the MU Veterans Clinic with securing the disability benefits he now receives and is thankful for their support in his battle for a Purple Heart.
“You know there are risks involved when you sign up” for the Army, “but if something happens, you’re counting on the military to recognize your sacrifice,” Elmer said. “If I had not gotten injured, I would have made a career of the military. Receiving the Purple Heart is important to me because I earned it, and I want to be an example to my kids of never giving up.”