KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO
Congressman Tim Bishop with veteran Bruce Sykes in Mattituck on Friday, when Mr. Sykes received a check for past benefits previously denied him by the Veterans Administration.
A Navy and Air Force veteran battling for years to win disability benefits for his service-related knee injury finally got his due Friday, just when he was on the verge of losing his home for being behind in the rent.
Bruce Sykes, 52, of Mattituck got a check for $55,065, representing back disability payments, and a promise of a monthly $376 payment, thanks to the efforts of Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and staff member Erin Deletto.
The check allowed Mr. Sykes to pay $6,000 in back rent and three months of back car payments. And he’s hoping it will help pay tuition to study nursing at Suffolk County Community College.
“I don’t want to live on disability the rest of my life. I want to work,” he said.
He knows his disability would prevent his being a floor nurse at a hospital, but he might find an opportunity to teach, he said.
“I can never say enough good things about Tim Bishop and that nice lady, Erin,” Mr. Sykes said at a press conference at the Southold Human Resources Center in Mattituck Friday morning. “She’s a miracle worker,” he said.
By the time he decided to approach Mr. Bishop, he had been fighting for benefits since 1999, he said. He had been trying to cut through red tape on his own, and making no progress, when another veteran advised him to bypass the Veterans Administration and go straight to his congressman.
Mr. Bishop said he is still fighting to increase Mr. Sykes’ monthly disability allotment.
Mr. Sykes joined the Navy at 17 in 1975 and served one year. In 1980, after jobs in coal mines and steel plants in his hometown, Wheeling, W.Va., had dried up, he enlisted in the Air Force. He had planned on making the Air Force his career, but in 1988, while jogging at his base, he fell on a rock and his knee “popped out.” Rather than involve the Air Force in a prolonged and expensive surgery and rehabilitation, his superiors arranged an honorable discharge.
But his injured right knee continued to hurt and he developed osteoarthritis that doctors at his VA hospital declared was related to the jogging injury sustained during his years in the Air Force. But that’s not how the VA saw it when it came to benefits, Mr. Sykes said.
Mr. Sykes lived Colorado for several years after his 1988 discharge, then moved to Greenport nine years ago. In 2003, at Claudio’s, he met Diane, the woman who would become his wife, and they married four years later, cementing his relationship to the North Fork.
He worked for several years at North Fork Bank and then Home Depot. Both companies accommodated his disability, allowing him to sit down on the job, but persistent pain eventually led to a complete knee replacement. He still requires pain killers that don’t eliminate but do lessen his pain.
Right now he’s unemployed. He pushes himself to walk several blocks each day despite persistent nerve and muscle damage, he said. But his need for heavy duty pain medication and his inability to consistently report for work on time because of his pain are hindrances to finding a job, he said.
He fell six months behind in his rent and was alternating month-to-month between paying rent or buying his medications. In months when he couldn’t buy medications, his pain was severe, he said. Even with the medication, he described the pain as “about a five” on a one to 10 scale.
Two of Mr. Bishop’s staffers spend full time on veterans’ issues, with literally hundreds of people seeking help with benefits or medals they were due but had not received, the congressman said.
“In an ideal world, they should not require the intercession of a congressman to get what they’re entitled to,” Mr. Bishop said.
If his disability gets him down at times, “Ultimately, I cannot let it bother me,” Mr. Sykes said. “Sometimes, I’m pissy as hell,” he admitted. “But I live for every day,” he said, crediting the devotion of his wife and his dog with helping keep his spirits up.
“I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent in the Air Force,” Mr. Sykes said. “I loved it dearly.”