Navy responds to sailor's claims

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The U.S. Navy replied Friday to some of the issues raised by Seaman Justin Burns in his letter explaining his decision to leave the Norfolk, Va., naval base, but left many answers incomplete because of rules governing privacy.

And representatives of a company responsible for administering military health insurance contacted the Southeast Missourian offering to help Burns navigate their program to settle $13,000 in medical debts.

Those debts, along with others accumulated by Burns, were cited by the 20-year-old sailor in a lengthy letter to the Southeast Missourian detailing the conditions that led to his arrest on desertion charges. The other debts included the cost of moving his new family to Virginia and his wife's student loans.

In a reply to written questions submitted by the Southeast Missourian, Chief Petty Officer Tom Kreidel, spokesman for the Surface Force Atlantic public affairs office, confirmed the Navy won't pay for moving a sailor's family if he or she marries after receiving orders to report to a ship.

But Kreidel said that Burns' military-sponsored medical insurance program should cover the medical debt.

Burns was declared a deserter in April and was arrested in Cape Girardeau on May 26. Burns was arrested with a shipmate, Zachari Valentin of Council Bluffs, Iowa, at his parents' home on Revlon Drive. Both sailors have been returned to Norfolk and duty aboard the USS Carr, a guided-missile frigate.

On Friday, Burns said he is awaiting official word on whether he will be tried for desertion in a court-martial or receive an administrative punishment.

Burns has said he repeatedly sought both emergency assistance to cover his debts and help prodding HealthNet Federal Services, the administrator of the Tricare health insurance system in Virginia, into paying the medical bills. Aside from small amounts that kept his family from being immediately evicted from their home, he said he had little success in relieving his burdens.

Kreidel said privacy issues prevent him from confirming that Burns applied for help from a program called Navy Relief, which provides loans or grants to sailors in financial trouble. But trained people are available to help, he said. "All ships and shore commands have a trained command financial counselor to help sailors with financial issues," Kreidel wrote. "They are trained by the Fleet and Family Support Center, which also offers financial counseling."

Burns also said he sought a hardship discharge. Citing the military personnel manual, Kreidel wrote that such discharges are for "severe hardships not normally encountered and resolved by other members of the Naval Service."

The hardship, Kreidel wrote, must not be temporary and must be unresolvable through the granting of leave or a change of duty. In addition, the hardship must have occurred or been "severely aggravated since entry into the service," the sailor must have no other means of addressing the problem and prove a discharge will reduce the hardship.

A hardship discharge would have immediately reduced his burdens by allowing him to return to Cape Girardeau where he could live with his parents. His apartment in Virginia costs almost $1,000 a month.

On the issue of medical insurance, Kreidel directed questions to HealthNet. A call to the company's public affairs office was not returned.

But two officials of TriWest Health Alliance of Phoenix contacted the Southeast Missourian and promised that the bills for the birth of Burns' son would be paid. TriWest handles claims west of the Mississippi River.

Cathy Coonce-Jackson and Glenn Gary of TriWest said they saw the story about Burns and "we were very worried about this young man. All soldiers and sailors claims get paid."

However, she said they contacted HealthNet and Burns had made no claims, nor has he directed any claims to TriWest. But that doesn't matter as long as there is proof of the medical costs, Coonce-Jackson said. "We would be happy to help this family coordinate with HealthNet," she said. "They are well within the timely filing limits."

Burns, however, said he has repeatedly filed claims with HealthNet for his wife's hospitalization for a kidney infection in October. And each time he has complained to HealthNet, he said, apologetic people assured him the bill will be paid. "That is what I have been told, but to this point nothing has been paid," he said.

Coonce-Jackson asked that Burns, as well as any other eligible service members having trouble with Tricare payment issues, contact their office through their Web site, www.triwest.com.

"There are people here more than willing to help him, at no cost and no blame," she said.

In his answers to the Southeast Missourian's questions, Kreidel did not directly address one accusation from Burns, that his command master chief on board the Carr told him to take his family to a homeless shelter to make sure they had enough to eat. But he said "No, it's not policy" in reply to a question of whether the Navy encourages such advice.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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