Fund will be set up to help area vet's family

Saturday, February 11, 2006

While Terri Dietiker's husband was serving in the National Guard, she was diagnosed with cancer.

For the past two years, Terri Dietiker quietly sought to keep her family going while her husband was sent first to Iraq and then to the Gulf Coast for National Guard duty.

Now she's battling cancer and the people trying to help her aren't being quiet. A state representative who's a decorated Vietnam veteran and a woman whose advocacy for the families of soldiers grew into a job as the state veterans ombudsman want to make a lot of noise to get her some help.

Terri regularly ferries her two youngest daughters from their home near Biehle, Mo., to Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis, one for treatment of cystic fibrosis and the other for treatment of a cleft palate. While her husband, Sgt. Justin Dietiker, was in Iraq with the 1140th Engineer Battalion, she left her job, relying on military health insurance.

And she became a leader in the family support group for Company B in the Perryville, Mo., area.

After his return from Iraq, the insulating company employing her husband entered a slow period, so Terri took a job at Maurices, a Perryville clothing store, in order to have health insurance coverage for the girls -- 6-year-old Hope, 3-year-old Isabell and 13-year-old Heather.

Hope has cystic fibrosis, Isabell the cleft palate that has required several surgeries and installation of prosthetics.

Justin Dietiker was gone again, this time to help with recovery from Hurricane Katrina, when Terri learned she had lymphoma. She's been undergoing chemotherapy treatments costing $15,000 each.

When her doctors laid out treatment options, Terri chose an experimental chemotherapy treatment rather than a more established method so she could continue to function.

"I did not want to go the first route with bone marrow transplants and all that stuff," she said. Bone marrow transplants destroy the immune system, and with Hope's cystic fibrosis impairing her ability to fight disease, Terri saw potential for problems for both.

And, she said, the more radical treatment would mean "I would be laying around and unable to function."

The family's struggles caught the attention of Pat Rowe Kerr, veterans ombudsman for the Missouri Veterans Commission, who took the case to Rep. Jack Jackson, chairman of the Missouri House Veterans Committee. They will join the Dietikers at a St. Louis County church today to announce the formation of a fund to help defray the famiily's medical and other expenses.

Kerr first came to know Terri during the deployment to Iraq. Kerr was looking for the family of another Dietiker, and while on the phone, asked Terri how she was doing.

The family car needed a transmission, and Kerr helped find the money for the repairs. Since then, they've been in touch regularly, Terri said.

The family falls through the cracks of government aid to veterans, Kerr said. If Justin Dietiker had been wounded, his family would be covered by government health insurance and he would have a secure income. But for the veteran who returns home healthy, there is no reward but a nation's thanks, Kerr said.

So when those veterans families face trouble, they are on their own, she said. The help that will come from highlighting the family's difficulties is a tangible way of thanking the Dietikers for their sacrifice, Kerr said.

"They will tell you they are proud they served," she said. "They will tell you they would do it all again."

Jackson, R-Wildwood, is a decorated Vietnam veteran and former Marine Corps colonel. He said he's determined that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan don't get a cold shoulder from society.

"When these events arise, it is so important to me the way I was treated that they get the proper care," Jackson said. "We've got to take care of this guy. This is a fellow Marine and Guardsman who needs our help.

"This is the time when we as citizens of this state can say you need help, more than just a magnet on the back of a car," Jackson added. "That is nice, but this is the real deal."

Since returning from Iraq early last year, Justin Dietiker has built homes with his cousin, but winter weather has slowed business. He's been turned down twice at Procter & Gamble. "Both times they told me I didn't have the qualifications they were looking for."

And for the past two weeks, he's been on full-time assignment at the Perryville Armory. On Friday, he learned his duty has been extended another week. But beyond that, he's unsure of where the paychecks will come from.

Neither Justin nor Terri would say how much they owe in medical bills.

"We've tried to stay on top of it, but it starts to get backed up, especially when you get a hospital bill for $1,000. That's a house payment and a car payment," Justin said.

Justin is seeking a full-time job with the Missouri National Guard, but those jobs are difficult to find. So he continues to look for private employment as well.

"When you have problems or hardships, you face them head on and just keep living your life," he said.

Terri's grateful for the effort Jackson and Kerr are making on her family's behalf. Justin is a former Marine, and Jackson's help puts real meaning into the Marine Corps motto of Semper Fidelis, or Always Faithful.

"I am really having a lot of trouble accepting this," she said. "I am used to being on the giving end and not the receiving end."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

Want to help?

Donations may be sent to "Operation Children's Heart," P.O. Drawer 47, 205 Jefferson St., 12th Floor, Jefferson City, Mo., 65101. All donations will help the Dietikers.

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