Fellow vet leads state's charge to help returning soldiers

Just 23, James Crosby has already served his country - and his fellow veterans - with great distinction.

The Winthrop native joined the Marines in 2002 at age 17. Less than two years later, he was deployed to Iraq where - after just a month in country - he was seriously injured in a rocket attack that hit his base west of Baghdad in March 2004.

After nearly a year in hospitals - including six months at the Veteran's Administration facility in West Roxbury - Crosby tried to get his life back to "normal" after he was medically discharged. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

Even as he recovered from his own wounds, though, Crosby was still fighting for his brothers - and sisters - in arms. Furious at a mandatory pay cut that he was hit with after being medivaced out of the war zone, Crosby lobbied his congressman, Ed Markey, to fix the discrepancy for him and all wounded service men and women.

"While in Iraq, we would get $1000 every two weeks," Crosby said. After he was evacuated, the pay scale was adjusted down to the "regular" salary.

"It goes back down to regular pay at a time that everyone needs the money the most," Crosby said.

A bill introduced by Markey stalled in the House, but in 2005, he succeeded in getting a fund for special rehabilitation pay totaling $430 a month into a Defense Authorization bill. The monies make up the difference in the pay cut until traumatic injury insurance payments kick in. According to Markey's office, Crosby's battle had helped more than 10,000 injured troops as of 2005. That number, no doubt, has grown substantially in the last three years.

Crosby, who now lives in Dorchester's Columbia Point, has taken on a new mission. At the request of the state's Veterans Affairs Secretary Tom Kelly, Crosby is now leading a team of specialists that is being deployed across the state to reach out to vets in need of services. The Statewide Advocacy for Veterans' Empowerment (SAVE) program focuses on suicide prevention, but is ready to help any veteran who needs to connect with the myriad programs that are now available.

Crosby's seven member advocacy team includes four veterans and the wife of a Marine Corps veteran who works with family members.

"What we're trying to do here is throw that net out there and get to know the services and the right people to get those benefits to the families that need it," says Crosby. "They should be getting the services they deserve and they shouldn't have to navigate the system alone at a time in their life when they need it the most."

The SAVE team now has a specialized van that can visit vets anywhere in the state and bring services directly to their door.

"The focus is on suicide prevention and we're all trained in that," says Crosby. "Our way of getting out there and preventing it is by getting them in contact with all their services and benefits. We can help resolve income issues, get them hooked up with the V.A. If all that extra help is in line, with that in place, we believe we're not going to see as many become suicidal."

The team, which was launched in early February, has already met with some success. Crosby recalls the case of a fellow Marine with severe Post Traumatic Street Disorder (PTSD), whose medications had run out and who was struggling to stay employed.

"We hooked him up with health care through the V.A., got him some emergency cash and chapter 115 benefits. We set him up with a career center, and paid for his first and last month's rent. All that got taken care of in one day."

Despite his injury, Crosby says, he was - in some ways - lucky. His father, who died last year, was also a Marine and was his son's greatest advocate.

"My father would get any question answered that he wanted," Crosby says. "Not everyone has that. We want to make sure the people who don't have that network get the help they need.

"And when someone is severely depressed, even with family support, we've seen that sometimes that isn't enough."

The SAVE team is building a database of Massachusetts veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan in the last seven years, a number that exceeds 30,000 men and women. Crosby says that deploying fellow vets to meet and help them navigate life after the military will make a big difference.

"We share a common thing, combat vets. Nobody can help someone who fought in this war the way someone who has been there."

For information about the SAVE program, call 1.888.844.2838 or visit mass.gov/veterans.