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Tucson VA: Navy Seal denied care and now in debt

Posted at 5:51 PM, May 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-05 23:11:21-04
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - He's a hero in every sense of the word.
Craig "Sawman" Sawyer is a 52-year-old highly-decorated veteran, once a Marine sniper and a member of the elite Navy Seal Team Six.
His list of heroic quests is long, including flying helicopter missions through black skies from burning oil rigs and ships Saddam Hussein intentionally set on fire at the end of the Gulf War.
"Flying through all the oil rig fires capturing prisoners off burning ships and off of different vessels," said Sawyer.
All the while breathing in toxins from the burning oil and depleted uranium munitions.
I lived in safe houses that were bombed out with asbestos everywhere. All blown out hotel rooms in the Balkans and the Middle East," he said.
And his body badly beaten through the years. During a training mission in the 80's, he took a rock climbing fall and plunged 35 feet.
"Broke my back in 3 places and a concussion, even though I had a helmet on. My teammates thought I was dead. They came over to basically clean me up and take me down the mountain. I was groaning and they realized I was still alive," he said.
A violent dangerous job that took a toll on his health.
"I spent my whole career carrying a 120 pound ruck sack plus 50 pound kit and a weapon. You know I'm beat down. I've been in helicopter crashes, rock climbing falls, parachuting incidents. You know almost gotten shot in half and blown up half a dozen times and stuff happen. You get beat up," he said.
He expected chronic pain his entire life, but not a chronic cough, which began to develop in 1999.
"The Navy doesn't deny that my lungs are problematic or damaged. What they deny is that it's service-related. So they want to call it asthma. Because anyone can call it asthma," he said.
So the VA gives him lots of medications for asthma. Sawyer doesn't want more medication, he wants a lung biopsy. His wife, Tressa Sawyer, says her pleas for the test are ignored.
"You have a Gulf War cough that needs to be addressed. You have TBI from falling on your head that we can't get treatment for his head until we know what's going on in his lungs," she said. "The VA won't do the test to see what's going on in his lungs." 
The Sawyers had carried private insurance years ago to cover outside costs until they found out the VA penalizes veterans for having secondary insurance. It's all or nothing, he said. So they dropped the private insurance and hoped the VA would take care of him. A tragic mistake, they say.
Sawyer fell seriously ill and called the Tucson VA. "I had tightness in his chest, he had trouble breathing, and thought it could be his heart. And I let him know my symptoms I was experiencing. You're to go to the nearest ER." 
He went to Northwest Hospital and then the hospital sent the VA the bill. The Sawyers showed KGUN9 reporter Valerie Cavazos a stack of bills from Northwest that the VA hasn't paid -- totaling $15,000  -- and are now in collections. "So what's happened is our credit is getting beat up because the VA won't pay the bill," said Craig Sawyer.
One letter showed it took the VA almost 18 months to pay $104 Urgent Care bill.
Craig Sawyer says his lungs are getting worse and so is his credit. He blames the VA.
"If we're going to have a Veterans Administration that's supposed to care for the health of our veterans then let's have it actually function as advertised and as funded because right now it's not," said the former Navy Seal.
Meantime, this former Navy Seal has had to once again pick up private insurance costing the Sawyers $800 per month.
KGUN9 has received many emails and calls from veterans who also say the VA is slow to pay private hospitals.
We also reported in March that the pulmonary critical care department only had one doctor.
The Portland and Seattle VAs, which are similar in size and complexity to Tucson, has had 10-12 doctors in the department. Acting Director Jennifer Gutowski, in response to KGUN9's investigation acknowledges the VA faces staffing issues in pulmonology.  
In the three months, KGUN9 has been exposing all these problems at our local VA, the Inspector General's investigators have been interviewing former and current V-A employees. They include whistleblowers who've talked with us.
No one is saying when their findings will be made public, but KGUN9 will stay on it.