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Rebuilding veterans

Local man works to provide financial help for U.S. service men and women coming home disabled from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

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By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

The economy appears to be getting up off its knees, Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, the weather is pleasantly Mediterranean, and the options coming with new luxury sedans and sports coupes are probably better than ever.

Life as we know it in upscale communities along the southern border of San Mateo County could hardly be more distant from the shocks, hazards and everyday cruelties of war that U.S. soldiers have experienced half a planet away in Iraq and, increasingly, in Afghanistan.

Menlo Park resident Dana Hendrickson, 60, is not a soldier and not a party to a soldier's experiences, but through his 16-month-old nonprofit Rebuild Hope, he is trying to do his part for those men and women, mostly from the Army and National Guard, who come home disabled and find a government bureaucracy that offers help, but at a price: months, sometimes years, of waiting.

One of Mr. Hendrickson's clients, former Marine Sgt. Philip Northcutt, 36, of Calistoga, was injured in Iraq in 2004 and recently diagnosed as 100 percent disabled by the Veterans Administration, but has yet to be paid any benefits, he says in a phone interview from his home.

It's been a difficult five-year struggle that's left him bitter toward the VA and the Marines. His disabilities include a crushed spinal disk from operating a 50-caliber machine gun, and post traumatic stress brought on by the sudden death of his commanding officer from a car bomb.

One major problem for him was the constant fight-or-flight situation in Iraq. He says he was in three or four firefights a day. The adrenalin caught him. "Seven months of that and you're really hooked on it," he says.

When he got back home, he found he had a habit to feed, and racked up six speeding tickets in three months. "I bought the fastest car and motorcycle I could get my hands on," he says. "Nobody told me, 'You're now an adrenalin junkie and here's what to look for.'"

But the car-bomb incident stayed with him. For a time, he was on prescribed pills. "I ended up lying in bed all day and drooling on myself," he says. Doctors made appointments for him, but he says he could barely get out of bed, much less drive. So he took to staying in a hotel owned by a friend where he could get to the bar without having to meet people on the street. "I felt like a 60-year-old alcoholic," he says.

The road to recovery included turning from prescription drugs to medical marijuana -- "My life did a 180. I got my life back," he says -- starting a screen-printing business, being arrested on marijuana-related charges, spending a year in Los Angeles County jail for refusing progressively more attractive plea bargains that would have saddled him with a felony record, being convicted by a jury, and then exonerated on appeal.

The marijuana complications also earned him a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marines, he says.

He had to sell his business to defend himself, lost his girlfriend -- serving in Iraq is a "relationship ender," he says -- and says he is still sensitive to political opinions that are "offensive to people I served with or the spirit of serving."

He says he's learning to cope, and he's now studying sustainable agriculture in a community college. "I don't think I could have made it this far without (Dana Hendrickson)," he adds.

Help from Rebuild Hope, which operates on donations, included arranging an infusion of $2,400 over 12 months to help Mr. Northcutt with his day-to-day expenses.

Rebuild tries to recognize the plight of these veterans -- about 40 so far -- and inform them of the help that's available if they ask for it. The veterans are often struck that anybody would care, Mr. Hendrickson says.

"I just felt that I wasn't really carrying my fair share of the burden of these two wars," he says in explaining why he founded the organization. These people need help, he says. "They served their country. They went over there."

And when they come back with severe injuries, they're often reluctant to seek help and are living desperate lives. They're mostly men, Mr. Hendrickson says. They believe they should be self-sufficient, and if their peers aren't suffering, they shouldn't be either, he says.

Once a disabled veteran admits to his need for help and applies to the VA for benefits, it's typically six to nine months before the checks start arriving, Mr. Hendrickson says. Rebuild Hope tries to bridge that gap. Individuals come to their attention through a network of some 90 nonprofits, a grapevine that took a long time to become a recognized part of, he says.

The federal government is overloaded with cases, he adds. "Things are getting worse instead of better."

Rebuild Hope helps veterans to help themselves, which leaves some out, Mr. Hendrickson says. His organization is just too small to cope with the very severe cases, he says. He interviews three references for each soldier.

Baby boomers donate

The typical donation to Rebuild Hope, when it's a check, is $100 to $200, Mr. Hendrickson says. With the economy floundering, donations have been trickling in of late, and he says he's had to form a waiting list that now includes about 10 cases from around the country.

Receptions tend to be where he raises the most money. Atherton resident Dorothy Hunter held one for about 30 neighbors in May at which Mr. Hendrickson spoke.

One of Ms. Hunter's two daughters, Kyleanne, is a Marine officer stationed in the Pentagon, Dorothy Hunter says. The other daughter, Leslie, 26, is an instructor at Fitness 101 in Menlo Park and says she's training for a marathon in October, hoping to raise $2,600 for Rebuild Hope, about $1,000 per mile.

Most donors are over 35, Mr. Hendrickson says, and include many baby boomers whose kids have not served in the military, a category that includes him. The key, he says, is touching people emotionally.

In his search for funding, he has plans to contact Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park. "I need to figure out how to get leverage," he says.

Mr. Hendrickson is a former analyst for the computer network security industry and marketing executive for major technology corporations. He's worked for the San Mateo County chapter of Habitat for Humanity one day a week for five years, and advised the chapter's executive director, he says. He has a bachelor's degree in engineering from Brown University and a graduate degree in business from Stanford University.

The organization's Web site is RebuildHope.org.

Just a number

Former engineering Specialist Cristo Hernandez, 25, of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, spent 11 months in Iraq building bridges and defusing bombs, and came back with post traumatic stress, his wife Delia says in a phone interview.

To add to his troubles, Ms. Hernandez says, when he returned to the states, his unit deployed to New Orleans to help lay out dead bodies after Hurricane Katrina. His depression went "through the roof," she says.

A botched appendectomy in a North Carolina Army hospital then left him with chronic pain and nerve damage, she says. He could no longer use a parachute, his wife says, nor could he perform his regular job, and was denied his request to retrain and learn to refuel aircraft -- a skill easily transferable to civilian life.

"Once you're hurt, you don't serve any good purpose anymore. You're just a number," Ms. Hernandez says, holding back tears. "It really hurt to see him go through that. ... He couldn't do anything. He just felt his life was being taken from him."

Now detached from his unit, he was assigned a gym detail handing out towels and had to manage his separation from the Army without the help of his squad leader, she says.

The couple and their two young daughters are living in Indianapolis and will be moving to an Illinois farm town of 300 people near where Ms. Hernandez grew up, she says. Gardening there will be a real relief for her husband, who now sleeps a lot and cannot be relied upon to watch the kids, she says.

With VA benefits for an 80 percent disability, soon to be 100 percent, she says, it's resembling a happy ending, but their path has been strewn with difficulty.

One landlord tangled with her husband over his perception that the landlord was disrespecting them, and the landlord refused to do repairs with her husband at home. They had sewage coming up under the toilet, and birds and bees taking up residence in the back of the house, she says.

Their first home in Indianapolis was in a bad neighborhood. "It was horrible," she says. "There was tons of crime there."

With her husband unemployed, she worked for a temp agency, then a collection agency, then stopped working altogether after her husband was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He's now on anti-psychotic drugs and is calmer, she says.

She contacted Rebuild Hope on a reference from a local financial counseling agency. Her husband was being more difficult than usual.

"I was kind of at the end of my rope," she says. In introducing herself to Mr. Hendrickson, she told him, "I have no more money. I need to move. I need help."

Mr. Hendrickson encouraged her and pushed her to address her many problems. "He basically walked me through the things I needed to do objectively," she says. "I'm a very emotional person."

"This guy is a saint," she adds. "He's like an angel. ... If I didn't have his help, I don't think we would (still) have been married, to be honest with you. It had just got to that point. We hit a brick wall (and) he was just a phone call away."

They now have enough to live on, but have no savings, she says. She has no health insurance because their income is too high for her to qualify for a government-subsidized policy, though her children and husband are covered by government programs. The house they're living in is being foreclosed upon and they're moving to Illinois in December.

Their new home won't be too far from a VA hospital, she says.

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