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Crosby: He fought for his nation, and it has let him down

While his wife Patty puts away groceries they just picked up Kendall County Food Pantry Shawn Ziegler wades through some

While his wife Patty puts away groceries they just picked up at the Kendall County Food Pantry, Shawn Ziegler wades through some of his V.A. paperwork on Thursday, January 31, 2013 at their home in Yorkville. Shawn Ziegler was injured in Iraq in 2006, but is not getting his benefits and having trouble receiving the disability pay the Veterans Administration says he should get. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 5, 2013 6:22AM

Standing in line at the Kendall County Food Pantry to get desperately needed groceries for his Yorkville family, Shawn Ziegler feels the familiar sting in his elbow, a sharp pain that led to his discharge from the United States Army in 2010.

But mostly he feels regret.

If only he’d never gone back to sick bay after his left arm, injured while unloading trailers in Iraq, became more painful.

When he first received the injury in 2006, the base doctor told him it was only hyperextended and gave him Ibuprofen. And Sgt. Ziegler learned to live with the pain — until, in Afghanistan a few years later, it became unbearable. That’s when he made his huge mistake: He reported to sick call again, where an X-ray determined shattered bone had been floating in his elbow all this time, creating spurs that left him with degenerative arthritis.

Surgery was performed but it brought no relief. The next thing he knew, the Army was fast-tracking a medical discharge, declaring him no longer able to serve.

But they did so after Ziegler had given his country 19 years, 7 months and 7 days of his life — just a few months shy of the 20 years needed to be eligible for a government pension and insurance benefits for his family.

After a stellar career that included two tours of duty in war zones, Ziegler not only came away with, as one surgeon told him, “the elbow of a 90-year-old,” the 39-year-old veteran also has knee problems and PTSD. While the VA determined his health issues put him at 80 percent disability, the Army declared he was only 20 percent disabled — 10 percent shy of what he would have needed to get full benefits.

Adding insult to injury, the government owes him $2,000 in back payments that have been held up for a couple years because the VA is so backlogged. Plus, Ziegler ran out of unemployment benefits in May after two tiers of benefit extensions were lopped off by Washington.

Ziegler has desperately looked for work since leaving the military and returning to the Fox Valley with wife Patty, whom he married soon after they graduated from East Aurora High School, and three teenagers. Despite the pain in his arms and legs, he took work doing remodeling jobs because he was good at it and it put food on the table. But the struggling economy has meant sporadic paychecks; and now he spends most of his days looking for permanent employment.

“I don’t want handouts,” said Ziegler, a soft spoken man who answers questions with military politeness. “I just want what the VA owes us.”

Ed Dixon, superintendent for the Kendall County Veteran’s Assistance Commission, is trying to help Ziegler and plenty more veterans like him. “Hell, they owe me money, too,” he said of his own overdue disability check for Agent Orange symptoms. “And I’m the superintendent.”

Dixon, who describes his job as “bittersweet,” says too many veterans are being dumped into a system that simply can’t handle the overload. “It pains me to see what these veterans are going through and not be able to help,” he said, admitting that he’s steered some of the more desperate cases to the emergency rooms because “at least they will get into the system.”

An employee at the office of U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, who represents much of the Fox Valley, said they are getting many similar calls.

When Ziegler’s wife was laid off from her job at a retail shop in Yorkville, the family really found itself teetering on the edge. Already behind on rent and car payments, Patty has four abscessed teeth not covered by the state aid she and the kids are on. And they watch their pantry gradually empty, along with their hope.

Just a couple nights ago, Ziegler said he had to sit down with his kids and explain how dire things are.

“How do you tell teenage boys to stop eating?” he asks.

An even bigger question: How do you tell a soldier his country has let him down?

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