HARTSELLE, Ala. (WHNT) – It’s been said, war changes you. No one knows that better than the men and women who have and are serving right now in America’s armed forces. When they come home their families and friends may also see a change. This is the story of a Tennessee Valley airman who is facing the biggest battle he’s ever fought since coming home from war.
Ken Blagburn served as an airman first class in the air force from June of 1989 to March 1996. In January of ‘91, he was deployed in support of operation desert shield and desert storm. Ken told me, “That was such a mismatched war. They didn’t have a chance. “
One of his favorite photos is of him standing on top of a tank the Iraqis left behind when they saw the Americans coming. As he put it, “They just abandoned it and ran.”
Ken’s fighting a battle here at home now. He says when he came back from war, he wasn’t the same. He was part of a group that underwent three weeks of medical testing when they returned. Ken believes the health problems he and other desert storm veterans live with now are a result of their service. Ken says, “There’s been a few that it has progressed faster but for the majority of them, it’s been a slow progression.”
Ken says he lives with migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and the list goes on. He says his knees and legs give out and he’s in constant pain. The war ken and others fought in desert storm is a different war from what our men and women saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while he doesn’t want to take anything away from those who fought in those wars, he feels the focus on older veterans has changed. “Instead of the focus being on all of us,” he says, “I think with each new war, each new era of veterans, the focus gets shifted.” He feels some of the veterans who fought earlier wars kind of get lost, pushed to the wayside, forgotten. Sometimes, Ken Blagburn feels likes one of those veterans.
Ken says every time he’d go see a Veterans Administration doctor, he felt like they were thinking he was just another guy looking for money. “That’s what they are thinking and all we are there for is for help. And we’re not getting it,” Ken added.
Bottom line, Ken felt like he was getting the run around from the V.A. “100 percent, 100 percent. “ Part of the frustration was coming from the fact that in March of 1998, the V.A. determined Ken was 10% disabled. But often, things like effects from chemicals like agent-orange, hearing loss or fibromyalgia don’t show up for years. Ken turned to Still Serving veterans here in Huntsville. The organization went to battle for him. “They completed the paperwork and they were able to get him from 10 percent to 70 percent and guess what, they’re now going for a hundred percent,” said SSV’s Sheila McFerrin. And SSV is still fighting for this veteran. Sheila added, “The thing is Jerry, he should be a hundred percent because his wife is his main caregiver. His wife takes care of him 24 hours a day as well as her children.”
Ken’s battle now is at home. He says his wife and four children will be watching television and he goes to his bedroom because he’s more comfortable there. He told me he can’t go to church or his kid’s school functions. And when he goes shopping, it’s late at night. He doesn’t like being around a lot of people.
He told me he avoids crowds but doesn’t know why. Choking back his emotions, he said, “I feel like I’m suffocating and I feel like I’m being targeted. I feel like people are watching me, like everybody’s eyes are on me.”
Like so many veterans who come home from war, he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ken describes it like “being in a small room and the walls closing in.” He sometimes has to force himself to leave the house. He says, “It’s very difficult. It is. And as soon as it’s over, I head for the door. “
After trying to take his own life in March, he’s getting help from a psychiatrist and a social worker who tell him the best thing he can do is get out of the house. He works in a back room at the post office 12 to 15 hours a week, but he says he’s trying. Ken says while he gets a disability check each month, he’s not looking for a handout from the government. When the money ran out recently, he tried to sell his service medals, but nobody bought them. Several people told him he should keep them because he earned them.
“I do what I have to do to take care of my kids,” Ken told me. “That’s the bottom line.”
Ken says he and his family are grateful for the help they’ve gotten from Community Action and the American Legion. That has helped keep the lights on and food on the table. Ken says he hopes by sharing his story, people will realize there are a lot of veterans out there struggling.