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As amputee veterans age and move, will government cover their special housing needs?

Cal Poly students unveil prosthetic ankle to wounded veteran to help him surf

Cal Poly engineering students designed an improved prosthetic ankle that helps amputees surf and perform athletic activities better. It was tested by an Iraq War veteran in Morro Bay.
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Cal Poly engineering students designed an improved prosthetic ankle that helps amputees surf and perform athletic activities better. It was tested by an Iraq War veteran in Morro Bay.

Retired Fort Riley Army Capt. Ryan Kules was just 24 years old when a roadside bomb in Iraq took his right arm to the shoulder and entire left leg in 2005.

After he left Walter Reed Army Medical Center 18 months later, he used a then-$64,000 Department of Veterans Affairs grant to partially renovate his house to make it accessible for disability.

The Specially Adaptive Housing grant provided by the VA, however, only covers the costs of modifications in one house, even though many Americans do not live in just one home their whole lives. Kules and his wife, Nancy, now have three children ages 12, 9 and 7 and their housing needs have changed. So this year it was time to move.

The costs to widen hallways, to modify showers and toilets and add entry ramps this time amounted to more than $90,000 and have come out of the family’s pocket. Kules said they paid it by using the equity from their first home.

Kules is now a veterans’ advocate at the Wounded Warrior Project and he spoke with reporters in Washington to discuss the need for legislation to expand the VA grant program.

The new home is also unlikely to be their last as Kules and his wife age and the children grow up and move away.

“One of the unfortunate realities I have to face is that (right now) I’m pretty active and I get around,” Kules said. He can walk all day on his prosthetic leg, and his left arm is strong enough to use a wheelchair without assistance.

“I know that’s not always going to be the case though,” he said. As he and other amputees from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars age and weaken, their housing needs will change.

Kules knows that as the years pass and he becomes less mobile “if we want to get into another place, to be where our kids end up and be closer to them, those modifications again would be on me.”

On Wednesday, Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced legislation that would expand the VA’s Specially Adaptive Housing grants to follow grievously wounded veterans through all of the homes during their lifetime. There is a similar bill in the House of Representatives, named after Kules, that was introduced by Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., David Roe R-Tenn. and Mike Levin, D-Calif.

Moran named the Senate version of the bill after another Kansan, retired Army Col. Paul Benne.

The Specially Adaptive Housing program was established by Congress in 1948 to assist wounded veterans from World War II. In the last two decades it has seen a sharp rise in applicants as advanced field medicine has allowed service members who previously would have died on the battlefield to survive their injuries.

In fiscal year 2017, the most recent data available, 1,926 veterans applied for the grants to adapt their homes, said Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project. Plenzler said that the number of applicants has almost tripled from a decade ago.

The grants are limited to veterans who experienced injuries of a loss of two limbs or more, or another injury the VA determines is the equivalent.

The grants are currently capped at $83,000 per veteran and would be increased to $98,000 to reflect the increased costs of home renovations in the Senate legislation. Under the proposal, a qualifying veteran would be able to reapply for the grant every 10 years, for up to six grants.

“This modernized and expanded grant program will allow veterans to utilize vital grants in a way that best fit their needs,” Moran said in a statement.

Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”
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