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For disabled vet, battle rages on as feds deny disability payments

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For 31-year-old Wayne Swier, a U.S. Army combat veteran who suffered devastating injuries from an improvised explosive device seven years ago in Afghanistan, this summer should have been a season of solace and celebration.

But fate and a federal agency seemed to have conspired to turn it into a nightmare.

Swier is set to marry his sweetheart in a week, and the couple plans to move into a new home near Johnson Siding built by the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops later in August.

By any account, it should be a summer of love for the Stephens High School graduate who spent the better part of two tours with the 101st Airborne’s “Band of Brothers” unit fighting the Taliban in the remote mountainous regions of Afghanistan.

Instead, in May the Social Security Administration deemed him no longer disabled and cut off his monthly disability checks, in a manner as harsh as the way that IED blew off his leg in a small Afghan village in November 2010.

Today, Swier is essentially broke, behind on his rent, his credit cards are maxed out, and just last week, power was cut off to his Box Elder rental home due to nonpayment, meaning he couldn’t even recharge his robotic prosthetic leg. Although his electricity has since been restored thanks to Black Hills Energy, the man’s problems have not been resolved.

“Somehow I was deemed no longer disabled by Social Security, and it’s been an absolute hellish nightmare,” he said last week. “I wish I wasn’t disabled and that my leg grew back, and that my arm functioned, and that my gonads hadn’t been blown off and I no longer needed testosterone shots, and I could hear, and I didn’t have PTSD, and that I didn’t have a traumatic brain injury," Swier said.

“I wish I was magically cured and whole again.”

But he’s not.

Ripped apart

Swier’s life changed Nov. 13, 2010, when, according to him, his platoon’s gung-ho green lieutenant, heading into his first firefight, was too stubborn to heed advice from battle-tested subordinates. Instead of choosing a safer, less obvious route to a school in an Afghan town, the lieutenant ordered the platoon to use the road.

One moment, Swier was a 6-foot-5, 189-pound, physically fit soldier on a mission; the next, he was crumpled on the ground, his body ripped apart by the concussion and shrapnel of an improvised explosive device buried in the road.

The IED blast took his left leg, smashed into his left arm and left side, cleaved his testicles and nearly severed his left ear.

Following that devastating day, Swier spent two years confined to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., undergoing surgeries, participating in painful rehabilitation sessions and being fitted with the latest in a high-tech prosthesis he will wear for the rest of his life.

Midway through his rehabilitation at Walter Reed, Swier was fitted with an advanced Otto Bock X2 prosthetic leg made of titanium-carbon fiber and equipped with a microprocessor, a computer that senses his weight distribution and motion. Days later, the disabled vet took his first steps in many months.

“It was like what I remembered walking to be like," the soft-spoken Swier recalled in a 2014 interview with the Journal.

But his battle on the homefront didn’t end there. Two months after being discharged from Walter Reed and returning to the Black Hills, Swier’s computerized leg stopped working and his new battle began with the Veterans Affairs federal agency.

He delivered the prosthesis to the Veterans Administration facilities at Fort Meade in Sturgis. Nearly two months later, when the VA hadn’t informed him his prosthetic leg had been fixed, he returned to the federal facility, only to learn that the VA had set the device aside in a storage room and never sent it off for repair.

Frustrated, Swier overnighted the artificial limb to a specialist at Walter Reed who quickly identified the problem and fixed a simple short in a wire. Swier had it back in four days.

Newest fight

Now, the bearded, battle-tested vet is forced to face a new enemy in the form of a federal agency that inexplicably discontinued his $1,600 to $1,800 monthly disability stipend on which he relies, and which he has regularly received since 2011.

“It’s surreal and overwhelming,” Swier said on Thursday. “It’s not like my leg grew back.”

After repeated visits to the Social Security office in Rapid City, which still had not updated his contact information as of last week, Swier and his fiancée, Bridget Marshall, a paraprofessional in the Rapid City school system, contacted the offices of U.S. Sen. John Thune and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem. Both of those congressional offices continue to work on Swier’s issue, but he still has not received his disability checks.

Originally told by Social Security workers that it would take a few months to resolve the issue and get Swier back on the disability designation, the couple was later told that, due to congressional office inquiries, it might now take six to eight months to correct the problem.

“I’m willing to take my leg off and set it on someone’s desk if it would speed the process,” Swier said. “Meanwhile, we wait.”

Comrade in arms

Swier may never have enlisted a more passionate partner for his latest battle than his fiancée, a mother of five who still has three kids at home. She’s told others of their problems on several social media outlets and said she was most concerned about her future husband, who made a commitment to his country and was being disrespected and humiliated by a government that is now not honoring its responsibilities to him.

“I understand systems don’t always work, but the lack of humanity, compassion and care has been the most painful part,” Bridget said. “My soon-to-be husband took an oath, and in turn, the government made an oath to him."

She said she will continue to fight for Swier and his hard-earned benefits.

“Maybe I’m someone who thinks they can change the world, but I’m just hoping this will change something,” she said of their combined battle with the Social Security bureaucracy.

Throughout their recent struggles, both federal and financial, Bridget said she has come to adore the man she met at a VFW meeting a year ago and whom she will marry Aug. 5 in Pierre.

“I love that even though he has seen the worst of the worst, he looks for the best and the beauty in everyone,” she said. “He is grateful for all he has and he is resilient. He has such a lack of bitterness, something I don’t think I could carry in my heart. He is so incredibly loving, compassionate, intelligent and humble.”

Marshall said she wanted to thank Thune and Noem’s staffs for assistance, as well as members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association for being there to assist Swier “on his bad days.”

Band of brothers

Josh Crump, a retired Air Force serviceman who spent two tours in Afghanistan and now serves as executive officer for the 65-member Motorcycle Association in South Dakota, said he’d become friends with Swier and had little doubt he remains 100 percent disabled.

“There’s no question that Wayne is disabled. I’ve ridden with him and I know he’s disabled,” Crump said. “They wouldn’t build him a home, ADA compliant, if he wasn’t disabled.”

Crump said he had encouraged Swier, “a guy who would give you the shirt off his back,” to call his congressional offices when he learned of his issues with Social Security.

“The biggest thing with Wayne’s situation is, we come off the street, we volunteer to join the military and we basically write a check to the federal government telling them we’ll do what you tell us to do and basically, in return, they need to take care of these servicemen and women,” Crump said. “But people sitting behind a desk are making these decisions, and they’re not helping anybody."

He said Swier has made a valiant sacrifice for his nation.

“Wayne’s made a huge sacrifice,” he added. “We all signed up with the understanding we could get injured or killed, and we’re fine with that. But he gave up part of his brain and his leg in service to our country.”

Federal response

Contacted Thursday about Swier’s issue, Sen. Thune’s office cited privacy concerns related to constituent complaints in which the senator’s office is involved, but a representative encouraged those with similar issues to contact the senator's office.

“My offices in South Dakota and Washington, D.C., are frequently contacted by people from around the state,” Thune said in an email statement sent to the Journal. “Fortunately, the professional and dedicated staff members who work on behalf of all South Dakotans are well-trained in handling a variety of cases, and they are committed to assisting people when they encounter problems with federal agencies or federally funded programs.”

Meanwhile, a manager in the Rapid City Social Security office, who asked not to be named, said Thursday he would personally look into Swier’s complaints and call the disabled veteran that day.

“I honestly would like to look at the case itself, because there could be so many factors and so many things come into play,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to speculate, but I would like to call him, I’d like to review his records and see if we can get this straightened out.”

Noting that Social Security has “special processing for wounded warriors,” the administrator referred further questions to the agency’s press office. Later on Thursday, he asked that questions about Swier’s case be put in writing, which they were.

As of Friday afternoon, the Journal had not received answers from the agency to the queries it had provided a day earlier.

But Swier did receive a call from Social Security on Thursday afternoon to confirm his status as 100 percent disabled. The representative said the agency had received his medical files, which total more than 8,000 pages, and had his case under review.

“I think they will continue to make us play the waiting game,” Swier said following the call. “It’s out of my hands. I’m not in control of this. I just need to play their game and ride the wave.”

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