Communities need to support vets
Sitting in his Hillsboro home Monday morning with his 2-year-old daughter, Riley, bouncing on his knee, Pete Richert looks like any other young family man.
It has been nearly four years since a roadside bomb in Iraq changed Richert’s life forever. Injuries caused the then 23-year-old soldier to lose his right leg and left him with permanent nerve damage to his left leg.
Richert’s wounds nearly mirror the wounds sustained by Ryan Newell of Marion — Newell lost his right leg and part of his left leg in a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2008.
Newell is accused of stalking and attempting to harm members of Westboro Baptist Church on Nov. 30.
Although Richert hadn’t talked to Newell lately, he knows it’s been tough for Newell, just as it has been for Richert at times, to stay focused on what’s important.
“The war goes on beyond the battle field,” Richert said. “We have a decision to make. Are we going to live life to the fullest or let the enemy get us?”
Keeping busy helps Richert cope. He helps a friend with a business, volunteers at Main Street Ministries, cares for his two young daughters, and stays involved with his church.
Richert still struggles at times with the adjustment and the cruel hand life has dealt him.
As if dealing with physical challenges and mental upheavals wasn’t enough for U.S. soldiers, they also are faced with financial woes.
Richert, a Purple Heart recipient, received Retirement Disability Compensation, just as every other severely wounded military person does when they no longer are able to serve. Because of his disability, Richert also receives monthly Social Security payments. However, he is limited in the amount of money he can earn and still qualify to receive compensation. If he makes too much money during a six-month period, he could lose his Social Security payments until he turns 62 — a long way down the road for the 26-year-old.
“Will Social Security run out? Should I try to collect it as long as possible?” Richert said these questions led him to the decision of taking the compensation that’s available because the future is uncertain.
A recent graduate of Tabor College with a degree in non-teaching physical education, Richert is still plotting his career course, determining what is best for him and his family.
“At this point, I’m not sure how long my leg would hold out,” he said, regarding an eight-hour shift on a job.
So, Richert concentrates on what he knows he can do — volunteering time to help friends and keeping the home fires burning while his wife, Krista, works part-time in the local chamber of commerce office.
Richert has received much of his medical care at the Robert J. Dole Veterans Administration Medical Center in Wichita.
“The VA is always a mess,” he said. “They are always remodeling or something. It’s never consistent.”
Richert knows VA personnel mean well but are limited by funding that is always in danger of being cut.
“There’s a great big hospital in the front with only a few representatives in the back to help veterans,” he said. “Some veterans get lost in the system.”
It can be frustrating and taxing. Richert has experienced that frustration and he knows fellow soldiers who have had to stand their ground to receive their benefits.
Richert’s road to recovery had bumps along the way.
“Every amputee goes through the same thing,” he said. “The difference is how they respond.”
After his final amputation — leaving him with five to six inches of femur remaining of his leg — Richert went through a lot of pain. He continues to suffer a great deal of discomfort to this day.
After the scabs healed, the rehabilitation began with an apparatus called a “leg shrinker” placed on the amputated part of the leg. The prosthetic leg fastens to a socket made of carbon fiber — better and stronger than Fiberglas, Richert said.
An athlete at Hillsboro High School, Richert was able to train again for races but had to quit running when doctors told him his hips were degenerating.
So, he’s swinging golf clubs these days to stay in shape.
Another barrier for veterans, Richert said, was public understanding of their needs.
“A veteran won’t ask for help but if help is offered to him, he will probably accept it,” he said. “All of us have needs and we’re not going to say anything.
“Money, food, help with maintenance on the house, we can use any of that kind of help.”
“People want to help but they aren’t sure how,” Krista Richert said. “This is new for them, too.”
Veterans in Richert and Newell’s age group don’t always fit in with established organizations such as the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Because of the feeling of not belonging, veterans feel isolated and can become angry.
Richert said he hadn’t had contact with Newell recently.
“It’s tough not to be provoked by them (groups such as Westboro Baptist Church),” Richert said.
He recalled an incident when he was in the rehabilitation hospital in Texas.
“This is really hard for me to talk about even today,” Richert said, having to pause the conversation to regain his composure. “A woman told me I deserved this (referring to his wounds).”
It still was painful — four years later — for Richert to hear his wounds may be in vain.
“The reason they are able to do this (picket) is because of us,” he said.
It disappoints Richert that Newell let the “enemy” get the best of him but he knows it isn’t easy.
“We have to stand strong. We can’t let emotions get the best of us,” Richert said.
His strength and steadiness comes from a loving family, community, and church, Richert said.
Richert wants people to understand veterans need support from the public — not just words of thanks — people need to actually follow through with actions.
“Words are only words. Actions really speak,” he said.