Red Tape Nightmare

by Jeremy Alford

After an endless parade of bureaucratic delays spanning more than two years, the state is finally directing taxpayer-supported financial aid to needy military families.

In the time it has taken state government to fully implement a direct financial-aid program for military families in need, Pam Berryman has helplessly witnessed her son's life unwind. That's two years and four months of living hell, she says, with every passing second as vivid and shocking as the previous one.

Her son Christopher served 18 months in Iraq with the Louisiana National Guard's 256th Infantry before returning home in the fall of 2005. After a few weeks of no active duty, Christopher's military insurance lapsed. He was paying full price for his infant daughter's doctor visits and absurd amounts of cash for his wife's medicine. But before he could even get a handle on the situation, Hurricane Rita plowed through his Lake Charles home. Insult to injury would be an understatement. At only age 24, he was faced with a lifetime of misery in just a few short months. "His house suffered severe damage, and his medical bills were piling up," recalls Berryman. "We didn't know where to turn, and my son was just being tossed around, sent from one agency to the next."

Both Rita and Katrina were key factors in the delayed implementation of the Louisiana Military Family Assistance Fund, which was created to award need-based grants to families of Louisiana National Guard and Reserve forces called to active duty since the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks in 2001. Berryman got wind of the program through media reports that year and started an endless battle of her own that has produced a litany of e-mail messages, personal correspondence and direct phone calls to all levels of government, even Congress ' all to no avail.

The state-sponsored program, MFAF, which is funded partly by taxpayers on a voluntary basis, was swamped underneath a bureaucratic mess. The Legislature placed oversight firmly in the lap of the Department of Social Services, but officials there were slow to claim the program. The jockeying went on for practically all of 2006. Eventually, the Attorney General's Office had to step in as a third-party administrator to get the ball rolling. On Jan. 1 of this year, a report on the program was due to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, but that deadline was missed. Gov. Kathleen Blanco also got around to appointing an oversight board in January of this year, but it didn't meet until March.

Coincidentally, around the same time, Berryman says her son developed a "mysterious illness that affected his liver and caused severe pain and weight loss," which isn't unlike what other soldiers returning from Iraq have complained about to the military. Emergency room visits soon followed, and even though there is still no diagnosis, there is a $6,800 medical bill. "If there were ever a time that we needed money, this is it," Berryman says. "Christopher could have used the grant for his daughter's and wife's medicines and for his own bills."

Last week, the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget finally took the last step to open up MFAF's account, which was holding roughly $260,000. Berryman and others hope that means applications will soon be taken and grants awarded in the coming months. Veterans Affairs Secretary and Brigadier General Hunt Downer, who also serves on the MFAF oversight board, was contacted for comment, but he did not return the call. He did, however, tell the budget committee last week that the group can "now administer grants as necessary," although no firm timeline was provided. In all, the presentation to the panel took less than two minutes.

If the letter of the law is followed, applications can be for something as simple as new tires or rent. After all, the initiative was engineered to reach as many people as possible and concentrates on the smaller complications of life in the Guard. More substantial allotments are also available for casualty cases, and a lump sum payment of $2,500 will be offered to the families of soldiers killed in action, missing in action or those who have been taken prisoner.

The fund provides bridge money, or emergency cash, to families that have lost a source of income due to military service. And while getting money out of the program is challenging, it's simple enough to donate. Taxpayers have the option to contribute to the cause through a check-off box on state forms for individual income, corporate income and corporate franchise taxes. Private donations are also accepted.

While the amount of money not being used is shocking to Berryman, the actual figure is not. There are good people who understand what the program is for, she says, but they probably don't know the people it has been held from for the past two years. "People from Louisiana are so generous, and I'm not surprised by the donations," she says. "But I'm past the point of frustrated that the money is not getting to the people who need it in a timely fashion. If anyone deserves help from this type of program, it's my son, but we have had absolutely no luck getting any response. Hopefully, that's about to change."