West Palm Beach resident Daniel Switkowski spent 546 days searching for roadside bombs in Iraq as staff sergeant in the army, a job that left him disabled and dependent on the federal government for financial help.
But as the government shutdown drags on, Switkowski fears he soon will have no way to pay his bills.
While Switkowski was in Iraq, the military vehicle he drove was hit by roadside bombs 37 times. Despite the blasts, he completed his tour of duty.
The 34-year-old suffers a host of medical problems as a result of his time in Iraq, including post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. The injuries left him completely disabled, entitling him to $3,000 a month in disability benefits. The government also pays for his housing while he attends classes in social work at Palm Beach State College.
Switkowski said his wife, Erin, a physical therapy student, also receives federal money to help pay for her classes at South University in Royal Palm Beach.
“Every veteran that has been injured in combat, this will affect every one of them,” Switkowski said Wednesday of the shutdown. “I think it is unbelievable that, because the president and the Republicans can’t come to some compromise, that we have to suffer for their lack of ability to govern. It is like a bunch of kids saying, ‘I get my way or nothing.’ ”
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told federal lawmakers Wednesday that about 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation next month if the shutdown continues into late October. Pension payments would stop for 315,000 veterans and 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents.
In addition, 500,000 veterans will lose their education benefits and living stipends.
“It is not just disabled veterans,” Switkowski said. “These are children of deceased veterans and families getting survivors benefits. My situation is bad enough, but that is tragic.”
The partial government shutdown, which heads into its 11th day today, forced hundreds of thousands of federal employees to take unpaid furloughs and has added to the uncertainty over the fragile global economy. If the shutdown continues, more than $6 billion per month in benefits to 5 million veterans and their families would be halted.
“Two words: It stinks,” said Charles Boykin, house committee chairman for VFW Post 4143 in Riviera Beach. “I don’t really think it’s going to happen, but if it does, there’s going to be lot of repercussions from it. Not just from us, but the senior citizens and everybody.”
Boykin’s comments were echoed by veterans across Palm Beach County.
“It’s just ridiculous what’s going on,” said Tony Harris, the commander for VFW Post 4360 in Palm Springs. “My members are angry and fed up. If it was possible that all of us could convoy up to Washington, D.C., we would do so. One veteran gets affected, it affects all of us.”
Ed Madson, the commander of VFW Post 4141 in Delray Beach said he was extremely frustrated that the shutdown might affect members of his post and other veterans.
“I am highly aggravated and every veteran I’ve spoken to feels the same way,” Madson said. “They’ve got some nerve threatening the survivors of a deceased veteran or a disabled veteran, when they’re still getting their pay, their gym is still open and regular working class people are being furloughed and they don’t ever hurt themselves.”
Switkowski said he isn’t sure how he’ll pay his bills if the shutdown continues.
“If they don’t have some type of resolution, there is nothing I can do,” Switkowski said. “The apartment that I live in, I’ll have to go to the office and explain what is going on. … It is not me, it is the government.”
Switkowski said the potential cuts have left many of his friends from the military “petrified” and “angry.”
Switkowski, who also has a work-study job with the local VA, said he doesn’t know what to tell veterans when they call his office.
“People are calling us asking are they going to lose their benefits,” Switkowski said. “I don’t know what to tell them. Listen, watch the news.”
Staff writer Julius Whigham, Staff researcher Niels Heimeriks and The Associated Press contributed to this story.