Scott E. Allen was at a tough place in his life when he found the guys at the G.I. Go Fund.
The Marine staff sergeant was unable to get a job and about to be kicked out of an abandoned house in Sun City, Calif., that his family was occupying.
A 13-year career left Allen, 39, with a ruptured Achilles tendon and nerve pain from two discs in his lower back.
In June, disheartened and almost penniless, Allen signed on to Twitter in search of help.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, an avid Twitter user, responded and sent Allen's information to the nonprofit G.I. Go Fund, located in the basement of Newark City Hall.
Within days, founder and executive director Jack Fanous, 29, of East Brunswick connected Allen by phone with a Veterans Affairs administrator in Washington who was able to get his case out of the backlog of claims.
Since 2006, the guys at the G.I. Go Fund have fought to get veterans the services they need, providing everything from groceries to guidance, all in the name of their close friend who died in Iraq.
"I went from nothing happening at all to having everything happen really fast," Allen said.
Soon after the intervention of the G.I. Go Fund, he received a phone call from the VA in California to schedule an appointment to advance his case.
"What's weird about it is that I have no bond with them at all," Allen said. "What motivates them to be so passionate like that?"
There are numerous support groups around the country where veterans help other veterans, but the G.I. Go Fund is unique in that its members did not serve in the military.
Fanous, 29, and his brother James, 23, of East Brunswick, and co-founders Nick, 28, and Alex Manis, 26, of South Brunswick, a civilian band of brothers, can often be found at veterans outreach events throughout the state dressed in a uniform of dark suits.
Their motivation to help veterans is inspired by the memory of their friend, Army 2nd Lt. Seth Dvorin, of South Brunswick, who died in early 2004 in Iraq when trying to dismantle a roadside bomb.
Jack Fanous, Nick Manis and Dvorin all went to South Brunswick High School together. Fanous and Dvorin played Thanksgiving football games in the field near their home and the Goldeneye video game in Dvorin's basement. They were in on inside jokes together and teased each other relentlessly, from elementary school through Rutgers University. Dvorin enlisted in the Army after college. Fanous didn't.
"Wherever we go, we take Seth's memory with us," said Fanous, "and that's why we do it."
Honoring a friend
The four came together through e-mails, phone calls and dinners in the months after Dvorin's death and discussed how best to honor his memory.
Now the members of the G.I. Go Fund work out of donated office space in the basement of Newark City Hall.
"I am unaware of any organization that consistently works for veterans like they do," said Gary Englert, director of veterans services for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
DMAVA has reimbursed the G.I. Go Fund for thousands of dollars in the last couple of years as part of the Yellow Ribbon Grant. The grant provides up to $5,000 in emergency financial support for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Money is used for everything from paying rent and mortgages to diapers and car repairs.
Recently, the G.I. Go Fund organized a job fair, which was attended by 4,000 veterans, in Atlantic City and has plans for another. It also is working on a guide to translate military occupational specialties to civilian job responsibilities, and is exploring how to better use social media like Twitter, Facebook and online chat programs to help veterans.
"These guys have essentially missed a year of their lives," Fanous said. "We are just trying to help them get it back."
Veterans walk in off the street after meeting with their council members or after being recommended by congressional representatives or counselors.
Steven Rivera, 30, of Newark was recommended by his social worker at the East Orange hospital. She suggested he go to the office to get help with a resume.
Alex Manis was seated at a computer under a large framed replica of the Constitution.
The graduate of Rutgers Business School coaxed Rivera to expound upon his duties as a sous-chef and baker aboard an amphibious assault ship during his nearly 10 years in the Navy.
"Keep going, there's more," said Manis, as Rivera listed his myriad responsibilities, which included serving up to 12,000 meals a day. "This is the military."
"I highly doubt a civilian would have served 12,000 meals in a year," Manis said. "This is what we are trying to tap into right now."
If the VA were a father figure, said Rivera, the G.I. Go Fund and the staff "would be kind of like an older brother."
Five veterans walked into the office and three phoned that day, some seeking job help, another to pick up an emergency grocery card, and another for advice on how to take advantage of the new educational bill for veterans.
"Whenever I help any veteran, any soldier that comes in here, I treat them as if I'm helping Seth, or at least I try to," Fanous said. "Because if he asked me anything, I wouldn't say no."
Allen is still in a tough situation, but he said is heartened by the support from the people on the other side of the country.
"I can't even tell you how good it feels to know there are people out there who have your back," Allen said. "I wasn't getting anywhere with doing this on my own."
Tomas Dinges may be reached at (973) 392-1544 or email@example.com.
In a horrific mistake as many as 1,200 veterans across the country have been mistakenly told by the Veterans Administration that they suffer from a fatal neurological disease, specifically Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS. They were sent a letter telling them of the news. It was an error and the diagnosis was wrong, the letters apparently had a 'coding' error. Veterans and others are outraged as one can imagine the panic of reading a letter from the government that states you have a fatal disease. Vets in Alabama, Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming have contacted the group about the error.
PS - How about a phone call instead of the "Death Letters"
August 21, 2009
WASHINGTON - Outside the Veterans Affairs Department, severely wounded veterans have faced financial hardship waiting for their first disability payment. Inside, money has been flowing in the form of $24 million in bonuses.
In scathing reports this week, the VA's inspector general said thousands of technology office employees at the VA received the bonuses over a two-year period, some under questionable circumstances. It also detailed abuses ranging from nepotism to an inappropriate relationship between two VA employees.
The inspector general accused one recently retired VA official of acting "as if she was given a blank checkbook" as awards and bonuses were distributed to employees of the Office of Information and Technology in 2007 and 2008. In some cases the justification for the bonuses was inadequate or questionable, the IG said.
The official, Jennifer S. Duncan, also engaged in nepotism and got $60,000 in bonuses herself, the IG said. In addition, managers improperly authorized college tuition payments for VA employees, some of whom were Duncan's family members and friends. That cost taxpayers nearly $140,000.
Separately, a technology office employee became involved in an "inappropriate personal relationship" with a high-level VA official. The technology office employee flew 22 times from Florida to Washington, where the VA official lived. That travel cost $37,000.
The details on the alleged improprieties were in two IG reports issued this week. VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said the agency was extremely concerned about the IG's findings and would pursue a thorough review.
"VA does not condone misconduct by its employees and will take the appropriate correction action for those who violate VA policy," Roberts said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
On Friday, Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said if the allegations are found to be true, individuals involved should lose their jobs, and legal action should be taken.
"America's veterans served their nation honorably and with no expectations of reward," Davis said in an e-mail. "It should not be too much to ask for that same level of commitment from government employees, too."
And Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the top Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said Congress should investigate.
The number of claims the VA needs to process has escalated, and the Information and Technology Office has a critical role in improving the technological infrastructure to handle the increase. President Barack Obama has said creating a seamless transition for records between the Pentagon and the VA could help eliminate a backlog that has left some veterans waiting months for a disability check.
Much of the IG's focus was on Duncan, the former executive assistant to the ex-assistant secretary for information and technology, Robert Howard.
In one situation, a part-time intern with connections to Duncan was allowed to convert to a full-time paid position even though the individual was working a part-time schedule 500 miles away at college, the IG said.
"We have never known of any other new VA employee provided such favorable treatment," the IG said.
The individual's name and relationship to Duncan was blacked out, as were many other names in the reports.
Investigators recommended that the employees who received the college money pay it back. The largest amount awarded was $33,000.
In addition to Duncan, three other high-level employees received $73,000, $58,000 and $59,000 in bonuses in 2007 and 2008, the IG said. In 2007 alone, 4,700 employees were awarded bonuses, on average $2,500 each.
Some employees were given cash awards for services that were supposedly provided before the employees started working at VA, the IG said.
A man who answered the phone at Duncan's residence in Rehoboth Beach, Del., said she was not available, and he said not to call back.
The IG also found that Katherine Adair Martinez, deputy assistant secretary for information protection and risk management in the Office of Information and Technology, misused her position, abused her authority and engaged in prohibited personnel practices when she influenced a VA contractor and later VA subordinates to employ a friend.
The IG also said Martinez "took advantage of an inappropriate personal relationship" with Howard to transfer her job to Florida. In the nine months after she moved, the IG said Martinez traveled to Washington 22 times "to accomplish tasks that she could easily do from Florida."
The relationship between Martinez and Howard started in April 2007 and continued several months after Howard left the VA in January of this year, the IG said.
Roberts' e-mail did not address a request from the AP to speak with Martinez. Howard could not be immediately located for comment.
Indiana Rep. Steve Buyer, top Republican on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, urged quick action to fix the problems. "VA must appoint honorable individuals to these critical positions," he said.
The VA has faced criticism before in its awarding of bonuses. In 2007, the AP reported that the then-VA secretary had approved a generous package of more than $3.8 million in bonus payments in 2006, citing a need to retain longtime VA executives.