Jerry Holliman, a 69-year-old, two-time Bronze Star recipient, had his legs amputated over the past two years after his diabetes worsened.
Without legs, the once-independent man was resigned to a nursing home. Anxiety and depression dimmed his hope, Holliman said, and he felt trapped.
Now, both a local company and the VA have promised to help.
Holliman had previously tried to get prosthetic legs through the VA. He went to a prosthetics clinic in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and thought the VA was paying for his new legs.
On Dec. 23, Holliman said a man from a prosthetics company, Hanger, came to his room and took back the legs because they hadn't been paid for.
For help, he turned to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Holliman's story was shared thousands of times, leading to an outpouring of support and outrage.
Holliman served active duty in the U.S. Army twice – as an 18-year-old specialist who volunteered to fight in Vietnam and as a 53-year-old master sergeant in Iraq. Between active duty and the U.S Army National Guard, Holliman said he served 40 years in the military.
While in Vietnam, Holliman said, he was exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical the American military used to kill vegetation. The chemical also caused diseases in Vietnamese and U.S. Service members, including cancers and diabetes.
Holliman said he's survived three forms of cancer, but in recent years, diabetes began affecting his legs, eventually leading to amputations.
"Jerry Holliman put his life on the line for our country. Now, America is failing him," veteran and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg wrote on Facebook.
The VA would not initially comment on Holliman's case, citing federal privacy rights. Holliman has since waived those rights, allowing the VA to explain.
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What went wrong?
Doctors amputated his right leg in November 2018 and the left leg in April. VA spokesman Matthew Gowan said in an email that Holliman requested prosthetics from the VA after his legs were amputated.
"However, the amputation sites were not completely healed and the veteran was instructed to follow-up with a vascular surgeon," Gowan said.
It is apparently this step – a consultation with a vascular surgeon – that was never taken and led to Holliman's legs being repossessed months later.
It's unclear if this was ever effectively communicated to Holliman.
In several conversations with the Clarion Ledger, Holliman never mentioned a vascular surgeon and said he did not know why the VA had not provided him with prosthetic legs.
Holliman said Thursday that he never recalled anyone from the VA telling him he needed to see a vascular surgeon.
Instead, Holliman ended up going to appointments with a private company called Hanger at a clinic in Hattiesburg. But Holliman said that he was steered into these appointments – with little explanation or understanding – by various medical staff.
When asked if there was anyone at the VA who helped him navigate his paperwork, Gowan did not answer.
"VA’s Prosthetic & Sensory Aids Service stands ready to deliver comprehensive support to optimize health and independence of our veterans," Gowan said. "But if eligible veterans do not wish to take advantage of these services, VA is unable to intervene and correct issues arising with personal purchases."
Holliman said the VA has sent him so much paperwork that a person could use it to stand on and change a light bulb. He felt inundated, he said, and it often seemed like different parts of the VA were segmented and not communicating with each other.
"It takes a lawyer to understand it," Holliman said of the paperwork.
When asked whether Holliman was at fault or if the VA needed to do a better job communicating with veterans, Gowan said, "Instead of placing blame, we take these types of situations to heart in order to better serve veterans in the future."
The VA will provide Holliman with prosthetic legs at no cost because of his disability, Gowan said, and the step that tripped up the whole process – seeing a vascular surgeon – is no longer necessary.
Gowan said Holliman's legs healed on their own.
Holliman has an appointment later this month at the prosthetics clinic at the VA Medical Center in Jackson. He said he's "cautiously optimistic."
"You can't live and you can't walk on promises," Holliman said. "... This is a lifetime situation here. A lifetime obligation."
A local company steps up
The Clarion Ledger sat down with Holliman for an interview at Veterans Home, a state-run nursing home for veterans in Collins, on the morning of Jan. 2.
The only evidence of his prosthetic legs was the paperwork Holliman held onto and a pair of new black gym shoes sitting underneath a table in his room he had to buy for the prosthetic legs.
Hours after a reporter and photographer left, a man came to Holliman's room with his prosthetic legs.
According to Holliman, it was the same employee of the prosthetics company who had taken his legs. This time, he was bringing them back, but they were useless without further adjustments.
The company declined numerous requests for comment on Holliman's case, citing federal privacy law.
When the prosthetist at a Mississippi company called Quest Prosthetics read about that in the Clarion Ledger, he told his boss that something had to be done.
John Robicheaux, the president of Quest, agreed.
Robicheaux said he used to work in pharmaceutical sales, but helping people regain their independence with prosthetics brings a joy he never experienced in his previous career.
"It's extremely rewarding," Robicheaux said. "... Sometimes our payment is much greater than monetary, if that makes sense."
So Robicheaux decided to help.
'A ray of sunshine'
Robicheaux and his prosthetist Josh Millet met with Holliman on Wednesday.
There were some issues with the legs, Robicheaux said, and they would need to order some new parts worth a few thousand dollars – at no cost to Holliman.
In the meantime, Millet made several adjustments, Robicheaux said, and they did some physical therapy with Holliman, who used the legs to stand and even take a few steps while holding onto a parallel bar.
According to Robicheaux, Holliman will have to work hard at physical therapy and he may always need a cane or walker to get around, but Holliman can regain mobility and independence.
Quest Prosthetics is ready to fix Holliman's prosthetic legs, Robicheaux said, but he said he understands if Holliman decides to take the VA up on its promise to make new prosthetics for him instead.
To Holliman, the actions of Robicheaux and Millet were "a ray of sunshine."
"There's some people that believe in you and will help you. That's wonderful," Holliman said. "... It restored hope."
Holliman said he knows he has a long way to go – with physical therapy, with making his home in Hattiesburg more accessible and with his truck, which could need changes for him to drive.
"I'm not gonna get out there and run track," Holliman said, but he now can see a future outside the room he shares with a fellow veteran at the nursing home. He pictures himself hunting, fishing, standing and walking.
"I was independent before this happened," Holliman said. "This is giving me my life back again."
Follow reporter Giacomo "Jack" Bologna on Twitter @gbolognaCL.
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This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: VA will give veteran new prosthetic legs after his were repossessed