“I don’t want to sue anybody,” says 30-year-old Pappas. “I just want to be fixed or compensated.”
The way Pappas was injured, frankly, isn’t very glamourous. He wasn’t injured on the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead, he was injured in a bathroom at a Duty Station in South Korea. In 2004, he was a new army recruit on his first tour, minding his own business one night, when a drunken sergeant tackled him and slammed his knees into a ceramic sink.
From that moment forward his life was changed forever.
The doctor on duty called it a sprain. Pappas was in agony and finally an MRI revealed a torn ACL ligament (anterior cruciate ligament) that required surgery. The ACL is the most important of four ligaments that connect the bones of the knee joint.
“The surgeon said the tendons looked like hamburger meat. The normal recovery time is 30 days, but I would need 90 days of recovery time,” say Pappas. “He said if you don’t get 90 days this will never heal properly,” recalls Pappas.
The base commander had a different view. “He said he’d had a similar knee injury and was back on duty after a month and I could do the same,” says Pappas.
Nine months later, the ligaments “tore from the inside out” and the army gave Pappas a medical retirement.
In the eight years that have followed, the injuries have persisted and life has been a blur of painkillers. His marriage failed, he lost his home, and there were more surgeries and failed attempts to get back to work, misfiled paperwork, delayed appointments, insurance claim forms, disability claim forms and a massive frustration with Veterans Affairs.
His compensation has ranged from 45 percent to 75 percent to 100 percent and all the way back down to 45 percent again.
“I was on pain meds from 2004 to 2008,” says Pappas. “They might as well have been vitamins.
“I went to work at the prison as a guard. But it came to the point where I just couldn’t do it. I had to go up and downstairs, chasing inmates down and I had to quit,” says Pappas.
A few months later he was going up some stairs and as he says, “it just blew again.”
The VA medical center recommended another surgery. They used part of a hamstring to try to mend the ACL. That didn’t work either. Instead of relief, Pappas got more pain, this time in his hips.
“Everything that surgeon said right after I was injured has come true,” says Pappas. “He said this is never going to heal right unless you get 90 days of recovery and that’s all come true.”
In June of this year, he made an appointment to see a doctor at a VA Medical Center. He had a bulge the size of a marble around his knee.
“I said to the doctor, listen, there is something wrong with my hamstring. I am in a lot of pain. I need an MRI.” The doctor said, “You don’t need an MRI. It won’t show anything. I am the doctor, don’t tell me what to do,” recounts Pappas. “A nurse came in and told me to go to the lobby. My brother was waiting for me there and so was the VA Medical Center security.”
They told him the nurse said he said something that sounded “like a threat.”
“I said, do you see me? I can barely stand in front of you,” says Pappas.
“I went and got my own MRI. I owe $800 for that,” says Pappas.
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“I really don’t want a lawsuit. But I want my compensation for the last eight years. I don’t think I can be fixed,” he says quietly.
Is he a medical malpractice case? What can be done for Alex Pappas? Who is responsible, if anyone, for a soldier being injured by the actions of another soldier? These are questions that Pappas asks over and over. “I got some dumb idea about loyalty. I don’t want to sue anybody.”
It’s not a romantic wartime injury - the kind that comes with lots of glory and a medal. But he was on company time and he expected more from the US Army and the VA.