Rough Homecoming
Wounded Navajo soldier faces new challenges with Army bureaucracy   

by Marley Shebala 
The Navajo Times
15 October 2004

ALBUQUERQUE - After Army Sgt. Terrell Dawes, 22, settled into a wheelchair, he looked around, smiled and said it was great to see Indians again.

Dawes and his mother, Vesta James, returned from San Antonio, Texas, Oct. 6, where Dawes was treated for wounds at the Brooks Military Army Hospital from Sept. 10 to 17.

The Army awarded Dawes a Purple Heart on Sept. 8 but failed to arrange for wheelchair assistance or give him pain medication.

Dawes, who re-enlisted in the Army for four more years, was riding in a Humvee with four platoon members when it was hit by a car bomb in Iraq on Sept. 8.

The blast launched the Humvee into the air and when it landed, Dawes was partially pinned under it.

He was flown to a military hospital in Germany where he was treated for burns over half of his body. He had the toes from one of his feet amputated and steel pins placed in his hips.

He was then transported to the Brooks Army Medical Center, where military burn patients are treated.

Pain and anger

Dawes, a former Window Rock High School athlete, was using a cane and wincing each time he took a step or made a movement, which he did with great care.

As Dawes got into the passenger side of his Mustang, the look of his face showed he was in pain.

Dawes, in a telephone interview from San Antonio, said, "It is pissing me off. They (Army) left me out hanging. They discharged me from the hospital when I couldn't walk or lift my arms. I could hardly talk or feed myself. And now they're making us pay for everything. They should have paid for everything."

He said the Army discharged him from the military hospital in San Antonio into the care of his mother on Sept. 17 but didn't tell them that the discharge meant the Army was washing its hands of all financial responsibility.

"They (Army) told us recently, 'Hey you're on your own and you have to pay for everything.' We have this big bill here to pay and we don't know how we're going to pay it," said Dawes.

He said his mother and he had to ask for more financial assistance from home.

That's when they found out that Michael Dawes, his biological father, had collected donations during the recent Navajo Nation Fair rodeo and his paternal grandmother, Janet Dawes, collected money at the fair powwow.

Dawes said his biological dad abandoned the family - which includes a younger brother and his mother - when he was five years old. Now Michael Dawes is using his name to collect money.

The Navajo Times attempted to locate Micheal Dawes for comment but was unable to contact him.

"It's making me mad," said Terrell Dawes. "I haven't seen any of that money."

$1,500 bill

Dawes was also upset about the Army making his mother stay with him and take care of him.

James, who took leave from her job at the Fort Defiance Indian Health Service hospital, said that when they found out last week that they had to pay a $1,500 bill, she started asking the Army to lift the medical hold on her son so they could go home.

She said Army officials told her that if she took Dawes home while the medical hold was in place, the Army could charge Dawes with absent without leave and her with kidnapping.

"So we couldn't leave the base," said James. "The things we went through. I just broke down and cried. He (Dawes) was out there (in Iraq). And he's fighting for his country and this is what we get."

She said the Army initially told her they would cover her financial expenses while she was in San Antonio, which they said would be from Sept. 10 to 27.

James said she felt like the Army was being discriminatory because of the color of their skin or because they were Native American.

She said that when she threatened to contact the local media about how they were being treated, the Army lifted the medical hold on Dawes a few minutes before 5 p.m. on Oct. 5.

Nelia Schrum, Army public affairs officer for medical centers, said in a Sept. 6 telephone interview from the military hospital that wounded soldiers are not discharged from the hospital until they can care for themselves.

She said she was unable to speak James or Dawes because she couldn't locate them.

When Schrum learned that James was on her way home with Dawes, she said, "She (James) can't do that."

But after learning that James arranged for the medical hold on Dawes to be lifted, Schrum said Dawes was probably released a convalescence pass.

Schrum said she did find out that James was staying at the Fisher Foundation House, which is where family members stay after they receive an invitation from the Army. The invitation covers travel, room and lodging expenses, she said.

'A lot disconnects'

Schrum emphasized, "We don't let people out of the hospital based on their ethnicity. Injured soldiers are injured soldiers regardless of ethnicity."

Schrum said "we have a lot of disconnects" and said she would contact James Oct. 9.

According to Dawes' hospital discharge letter, which was written on Sept. 17 letter to Capt. Jacob Smith from Maj. Fran M. Renz, "He (Dawes) currently needs assistance to get out of bed and cannot walk without help. He is unable to carry his own tray in the dining hall and will need assistance with daily hygiene needs."

James said maybe if her son, who went on four combat tours, had blue eyes and blonde hair, he would have been give the same treatment as Army Spc. Jessica Lynch, who went on only one combat tour.

The Army went all out for Lynch by paying for her family's travel expenses and buying her a new vehicle and home, said James.

At press time, no patient representative from the hospital had returned a message from the Navajo Times.

Schrum said medical staff were surprised by James' accusation and said James told them she was happy with how her son was treated.


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.