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McChord Field advocates provide help for wounded Airmen

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jake Chappelle
  • 446th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Not many people enjoy being told that they can't do something -- especially after they've experienced an unexpected life-altering injury or illness.

Sometimes it takes the aid and understanding of a person who's been through similar circumstances to help them press on and make the best of their new situation.

Thomas Higdon and Robert Snyder apply this kind of empathy when they advocate for Airmen who come back from deployments injured, wounded, or ill.

"Until last year, I didn't know who or what (the Disabled American Veterans), Air Force Recovery Care Coordinator, and the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program's purposes were," said Master Sgt. Ken Ake, a recruiter for the 446th Airlift Wing here.

These people and their organizations ended up playing vital roles and provided needed encouragement to help him through his medical board process, Ake said.

As a transition service officer with the DAV Higdon, a disabled Air Force veteran, implements the agency's mission- helping disabled servicemen with their Veterans Affairs disability claims with no strings attached.

"Everything we do is free, gratis," Higdon said. "We're a non-profit organization. I don't work for the government in any way, shape, or form. I just happen to be here at McChord Field."

"Tom takes the time to help service members," Ake said. "You can tell he's passionate about helping fellow military. His motto is 'call me.'"

Higdon paints a picture of how he prepares Airmen for the VA claims' process.

"You're getting ready to get out of the military, or just got back from a deployment, and got hurt," he said. "You say to me, 'I would like to put in a VA disability claim.' The first thing we'll do is fill out a VA Form 21-22 (Appointment of Veterans Service Organization as Claimant's Representative). After that, we fill out a VA Form 21-526, which talks about personal information, including who you are, when you got in the military, etcetera. I arrange them in a packet, so it only takes about 15 minutes to complete. We'll talk about medical stuff, and I go from your head to your toes. If you're an (air reserve technician) or an (active guard reservist), then you'll need to bring in your military medical records, because you are treated as active duty."

Even though documents like line-of-duty determinations and DD 214s aren't immediately required, it helps if the Reservist brings them in for their initial appointment, he said.

Higdon stresses individuals to take advantage of his organization's free service.

"We can be your advocate between you and the VA, and it doesn't cost you a nickel," he said. "But it's up to the individual to come talk to me."

Another free service is the Air Force Recovery Care Program.

Snyder is a recovery care coordinator and the Pacific Northwest focal point for the RCP and Air Force Wounded Warrior, or AFW2, program. He is the boots on the ground person who can deliver more immediate assistance to any seriously wounded, sick, or hurt Airmen from the Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and active duty. Reservists and Guardsmen need to have been on Title 10 or 32 orders when the injury occurred.

"As a RCC, I help simplify and enhance the way non-clinical care and support are delivered to wounded, ill and injured Airmen and their dependents," Snyder said. "One of these ways is helping steer the Airman and their family on the road to recovery, so they don't feel like they're doing it on their own."

Snyder, like Higdon, doesn't have a chain of command.

"I can start at the top," Snyder, a retired Air Force master sergeant, said. "If there's a problem or an issue of why an Airman isn't receiving any medical treatment after they've come back from a deployment, I can investigate from whatever angle I choose- and get answers."

"Rob is always willing to get the answers for you, when you ask," Ake said. "He takes personal interest in how you are doing. An example of this is when I received conflicting information on what was going on with my (Informal Physical Evaluation Board) packet. Rob took the time and contacted the source, and provided the accurate answer I needed. After my illness, treatment and recovery (the DAV and AFW2) made a difference in my life to push forward, and provide needed encouragement to help me process through the IDES, or Integrated Disability Evaluation System."

The IDES is the process during which a military member is medically assessed by the VA and the member's service branch to determine whether they are fit or unfit to continue their military duties. This system is one Snyder knows well, as he experienced it while serving on active duty in 2009.

"I've been through the process, and recently, so I can relate to what an Airman goes through," he said. "I find that when I talk about my experiences with a wounded Airman, they seem to open up, and be more receptive to talk to me about their troubles. This kind of relationship makes it easier for me to provide a good course of action for them."

Snyder also ensures Airmen have access to various support programs available from the military, federal, state, local, and non-profit sector, and follows up with the Airman to check if their needs were met.

Both, Higdon and Snyder, emphasize that helping military members is why they do what they do.

"I don't do it for money," Higdon said. "I just want to make sure veterans get what they deserve."

"No question is too small and unimportant," Snyder said. "The only way I can help is if the service member, or someone in their chain of command contacts me."

Reservists who suffered an injury or illness while serving on Title 10 orders, or aren't sure, but would like answers, please contact Robert Snyder at (253) 982-8580 or to make an appointment.

For questions or concerns about VA benefits or how to make a claim, please call Thomas Higdon at (253) 982-1310 or send him an email at