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Coast vet injured in Iraq says he felt abandoned, angry over VA’s response to his treatment

“I needed a quality of life back. I’m only 42. I’ve got three kids. I want to enjoy them,” he said.
A South Mississippi veteran injured in Iraq says he’s frustrated with his treatment by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 8:15 AM CST
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D’IBERVILLE, Miss. (WLOX) - A South Mississippi veteran injured in Iraq says he’s frustrated with his treatment by the Department of Veterans Affairs. While he’s done fighting overseas, he’s now fighting for other veterans like himself to get better care.

In September 2008, Sgt. A.J. Riall was on patrol with U.S. Army’s 320th MP Company in Tikrit, Iraq, when the vehicle he was in was hit by an IED.

“When the bomb went off, I don’t really remember a whole lot,” he said during a recent interview at his home in D’Iberville. “I just remember the flames and, when I woke up, my gunner was in my lap.”

Sgt. A. J. Riall poses with his MRAP just hours before it was hit by an IED in Tikrit, Iraq.
Sgt. A. J. Riall poses with his MRAP just hours before it was hit by an IED in Tikrit, Iraq.(Submitted)

The incident left Riall with a damaged spine, wrist and shoulder, in addition to a traumatic brain injury but, as is so often the case, he continued serving, in a combat zone.

”It was just kind of, rub dirt on it and get back on the ground,” he said matter-of-factly. “I really didn’t become aware of the extent of my injuries until I came home in 2009.”

Sgt. A. J. Riall was stationed in Iraq when an IED struck the vehicle he was patrolling in,...
Sgt. A. J. Riall was stationed in Iraq when an IED struck the vehicle he was patrolling in, leaving him with chronic back pain. It would be years before he finally was able to get the surgery needed to heal, he said.(Submitted)

Riall says he was told at that time by Veterans Affairs doctors that he should wait until the pain became unbearable before having back surgery. So that’s what he did... for 11 years.

”I tried to push through and prolong the surgery as long as possible and, when I finally did go to them and let them know where I was at, it was time to go meet with a specialist,” he said. “They didn’t like that idea, I guess.”

In late 2020, Riall went to the VA and asked for the surgery but, according to him, his doctor wouldn’t order the MRI needed to properly diagnose the extent of the damage. Instead, he was told he had to go to physical therapy. When he tried to schedule that, though, Riall said he was told that PT had limited access and he should come back in a few months.

Aggravated with the delays and still in constant pain, Riall filed the first of several complaints in April 2021 with a hotline setup by the White House for veterans. That process, however, didn’t get him very far. Instead, he kept getting sent back to the same doctor that insisted that he go through physical therapy instead of getting the MRI Riall requested to properly assess his back injury.

“That was tough,” he said of the loop he was stuck in. “(It was) just like they didn’t care and I was abandoned. It left me feeling kind of angry because this is what they’re supposed to do. The military tells us that there’s no such thing as a good excuse and, in this case, I don’t have a lot of empathy for excuses.”

Retired Army Sgt. A.J. Riall finally got his back surgery a few months ago. Even though it has...
Retired Army Sgt. A.J. Riall finally got his back surgery a few months ago. Even though it has helped significantly with his pain, he continues to do physical therapy.(WLOX)

His complaints were finally addressed in November 2021 through a review process that sent his hotline complaints to the Biloxi VA.

Riall said he was pleasantly surprised when he received a call from the chief of staff at the Biloxi hospital seeking to help him resolve his problems. By then, however, Riall had turned to a private physician for his surgery and was planning to use his private insurance to pay for everything.

The VA has a Community Care program that allows for this but after months of asking, Riall hadn’t been referred to that program.

“I needed a quality of life back. I’m only 42. I’ve got three kids. I want to enjoy them,” he said.

In an interview, the Biloxi VA acknowledged that Riall should have been approved for Community Care sooner, but they did not offer an explanation for the delay. They did eventually say that the VA would cover the cost of the surgery and recovery.

”The VA works to provide the best medical care possible and partners with the local community in the process,” reads a statement issued by the VA. “Services not offered at our facility, such as back surgery, are referred to the community based on clinical appropriateness and regulatory allowances or restrictions.”

Riall’s surgery was in December. He has been wearing a bone-growth stimulator to enhance his back’s healing. He said he is no longer feeling the same pain he experienced for years before the surgery.

Despite the improved response from the VA, Riall said he has had problems getting timely support for his out-of-pocket expenses.

“It just gets really taxing and frustrating, going through this,” he said after a recent PT session. “I know how I got hurt, and I end up reliving a little bit of it and so that gets frustrating... I think people need to take that into consideration, you know, when you are considering someone who has been injured in combat. They carry that with them. It’s just... it’s been tough.”

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