Ellis “Jerry” Majetich served our country in both the Army and the Marine Corps. He was Security Team Leader, Captain's Orderly and Squad Leader with Weapons Company 1/7 during Desert Shield/Storm and a Tactical Team Leader with PSYOP, 7th Group during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In October 2005, his vehicle was struck with an IED. He suffered incredible injuries, including 100 percent face and scalp burns. He was unrecognizable.
Majetich was honorably discharged and given several awards, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. His recovery has been a long, uphill battle. He has had 73 surgeries, including extensive facial reconstruction. Parts of his fingers have been amputated; his right hand is basically a nub.
He was eligible for full-time disability, but Majetich thought if he was capable of working and supporting himself, he would. He discovered Drexel Hamilton, a Wall Street firm that trains returning combat veterans in finance. Up until then, it hadn’t been easy for him to find a job. He had no ears, and many employers did not want to deal with his appearance.
Things finally started to look up for Majetich, and he married a longtime friend. He had no idea of the bureaucratic financial nightmare he was about to embark upon. He told me that he has received nothing less than outstanding medical treatment from the VA. But I am skeptical about its administrative side.
About two and half years ago, Majetich received a bill from the Social Security Administration for about $68,000. He was told that he must repay disability income that he had wrongly received. But he hadn’t done anything wrong.
When Majetich began working, he asked the Social Security Administration to discontinue the disability income. He was told that the pay would continue for six months, on a sort of trial period before being stopped, and would not have to be repaid. After the six months passed, the pay continued but was reduced a little. He immediately went to the agency again to tell them this, and was informed that his benefits had been halted and whatever he was receiving was because he was a combat veteran, or for his children because they were in college. He told them that he did not believe this was a proper benefit and that everything should stop, but they refused.
Over the next year, Majetich went to or called the Social Security office 13 times, which was documented in their computer system, telling them to stop paying him. If he attempted to pay them back, all payments made were simply paid back to him. On one of the last few trips there, his then-fiancee came with him and they both refused to leave until the agency produced something in writing showing he was entitled to the benefits. After almost an hour of research, the agency admitted he was right and finally agreed to halt the benefits. While Majetich was receiving the extra pay, he used it for what they told him it was for. He paid for his children’s schoolbooks and helped with their rent and other expenses.
Majetich again went to the Social Security office to at least try and have part of the $68,000 written off — but in the fine print there were three rules in order to have any part of the bill withdrawn. First, that it was a mistake by SSA. This was easy, it obviously was. Second, the SSA had to have been notified of their error. Again, easy, as shown in their own computer system, Majetich had been in their office 13 times to do this. But, ah, that third and final clause: Were you financially capable of living without the benefit? Due to the work Majetich was doing, he could have survived without it.
He began paying Social Security back $2,000-$2,500 every month.About a month before his wedding, Majetich received a bill from the IRS for about $9,800 saying that because he wasn’t entitled to the Social Security payments, they were being taxed. He dutifully paid the IRS debt off last year.
But then his disability pay from the VA stopped. When he inquired about it, he was told that he had been overpaid $17,600 because he never told them about a 2009 divorce to a previous wife. They said he’d received an extra $200 a month for his spouse after the divorce — curiously providing him with no evidence of this. But Majetich did tell the VA of his divorce immediately after it was finalized, because he didn't want his ex to have any access to his records. The response? It was a different division of the VA and the two departments did not communicate with each other.
How are veterans supposed to know they have to contact several different branches within the VA? He was told there are five different branches that should be notified with any marital changes, dependent changes or moves (the VA Medical Center, the VA Regional Office, Vocational Rehabilitation, Benefits and Finance). None of these offices use the same computer system and their computer systems cannot communicate with each other!
The VA said they sent Majetich a letter last October notifying him of this action and how to set up a payment plan — but the letter was sent to an address he had seven years ago.
Majetich was told if he didn’t set up a payment plan with the VA, he would not receive his $3,360 monthly payments for the next six months. But without this money, how could he pay Social Security back every month? He eventually obtained a partial benefits payment, but in return the veteran had to set up a monthly repayment plan of $1,400 for the next year.
In the past two and a half years, Majetich has received approximately $96,000 in bills from the government, of which he has paid back $55,000 so far. He now must pay Medicare premiums, since he is no longer receiving Social Security. This is ridiculous given that someone who is considered 100 percent disabled is not charged premiums!
Considering what Majetich went through due to his injuries, and the extensive efforts he took in order to clear up the disability payments, he should not be penalized for the government’s gross mistakes. He is one of the last Americans this should happen to.
Majetich is still undergoing extensive medical procedures. He is being treated for pre-cancerous cells on his lip and is waiting to receive laser treatment on his lips where the skin grafts are ripping at the corner of his mouth. He needs surgery on his right elbow for heterotopic ossification, where bone forms in the soft tissues, typically after a trauma or burn. He also needs surgery on what remains of his right hand to loosen the tendons, because it puts his hand into a fist and pulls it down at the wrist, causing significant pain.
Some medical issues he will live with the rest of his life. If he reads more than an article or something brief that requires comprehension, he has severe headaches due to traumatic brain injury. When he's overtired, his speech slows down and it is very difficult for him to speak. He aches from his injuries. He suffers from PTSD that worsens when he takes pain medication.
How do you fix this? Ellis Majetich doesn’t want pity. There needs to be a veterans’ advocate for seriously injured veterans. Congress can do this. And the rules need to be standardized across the board within the VA. Overall, the VA has provided Majetich with excellent medical care. But the lack of communication within the agency and with veterans is a real problem that needs work. All Majetich wanted to do was work to support himself and his family, instead of having taxpayers pay for his regular living expenses. President Trump said he is fixing problems within the VA. He or Congress need to fix this one, fast.