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Promises, but still no help, for those caring for wounded vets

By Jim Spellman, CNN
  • A sniper's bullet in Iraq left Staff Sgt. Matthew Keil paralyzed
  • His wife, Tracy, works around the clock to care for him
  • They are waiting for a law that will provide money and training for wounded vets' caregivers
  • Until the law takes effect, Tracy says "it's like I'm working for the VA for free"

Parker, Colorado (CNN) -- When the sniper's bullet hit his neck, Staff Sgt. Matthew Keil nearly blacked out.

"I had heard the gunshot, and it felt like someone had kicked me right in the back. A ton of bricks swung and hit me in the back, and I fell," he said. "I couldn't feel my body. I could only feel my head, and it felt like I was floating."

He was on a rooftop in Ramadi, Iraq, leading a nine-man squad. His men rushed to his aid, stopped the bleeding and then strapped him to a stretcher to evacuate him.

This is when Keil finally closed his eyes.

A short time later, a world away, in Colorado, Tracy Keil's phone rang: Her husband had been severely wounded. Tracy Keil was a successful accountant working in corporate America.

She didn't know it at the time, but that day, February 24, 2007, was the last day she would ever work a regular job. A much more difficult job and an uncertain future awaited her.

Sgt. Keil opened his eyes again three days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Tracy was by his side.

"My wife was standing next to the bed, and she said, 'I'm here, I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here as long as you need. You're stuck with me,' " he recalls.

Matthew's legs and right arm were paralyzed, and he had minimal control over his left arm. He would use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. This is the point where some spouses call it quits.

"I could have. I watched a lot of wives leave. When we said our vows, I meant every word of it. It didn't matter what physical or mental condition he was in. It just didn't. He was alive, and that's all that mattered," Tracy says.

Down, but not out, they set about building a new life: Months of physical therapy and rehab, then back to Colorado.

It was a lot for any couple to handle, but Tracy, 33, and Matt, 29, were still newlyweds. They had exchanged vows just six weeks to the day before Matt was shot.

While most young couples are focused on building careers and starting a family, the Keils were focused on learning to live in their new roles: him as paraplegic, her as caregiver.

They were determined to not let the injury define them. They would have a full and productive life, but it would take determination and hard work.

"I think Matt and I were more prepared as a couple for death than for an injury like this," Tracy says. "We had talked about a lot of things, but we have never talked about this."

So they turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help. The Keils say the VA has taken good care of Matthew's primary medical concerns, but there was no help for Tracy.

She longed for support and to be recognized for her role as Matthew's caregiver.

In the Army, Matthew loved the feeling of being part of a team. But the Keils felt abandoned.

Then, in May 2010, a new federal law passed that promised to help caretakers like Tracy. Under the law, caregivers would receive a financial stipend, health care, training and -- perhaps most importantly -- respite care. Trained health care providers would come into the home and give the caretaker a break.

Obama signs $3.6 billion veterans caregiver bill

The law was supposed to take effect on January 31, but so far, none of the new benefits have been implemented.

The VA says it is unable to provide a timeline for when the benefits will be available, but in a statement, the agency says it's working as quickly as possible.

"VA understands that every day is a challenge for the Caregivers of our most critically injured or ill Veterans. That's why VA is working to move forward with deliberate haste to implement this complex Act. Different benefits will have different implementation timelines based upon the law's requirements and the complexity of the benefit."

During the signing ceremony in May, President Obama hailed the legislation as "a major step forward in America's commitment to families and caregivers who tend to our wounded warriors every day."

When asked about the delay in implementation, a White House official said "the President views delays in payments to caregivers as unacceptable. He has directed his team to work through options immediately to get these benefits to the caregivers who need them."

The VA says that the new program is complicated to implement and that it has never before given benefits to nonveterans, so systems must be out into place to determine eligibility and prevent fraud and abuse.

The delay has left the Keils felling abandoned once again. Tracy has been forced to give up her career and faces decades of caring for Matt.

As much as the benefits, Tracy is looking for recognition for the work she does to help her wounded warrior husband.

"I had a great job, I made good money, we had plans to buy a house and move forward. I had a lot of potential." She says. "Now it's like I'm working for the VA for free."

Matt is unable to even get himself out of bed and needs constant care with everything from feeding to using the toilet. For Tracy, it's a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job.

"There are days that I think, 'How am I going to do this for the rest of my life?' " She says, "I love him, and I would do anything for him, and that's what gets you though those really, really hard days."

Through their hard work, the Keils have built a new life. A nonprofit group, Homes for Our Troops, built a wheelchair-accessible house for the Keils, and through artificial insemination, the couple's hope of starting a family has come true: Twins Faith and Matthew Jr. were born in November.

The babies add even more work for Tracy. Given Matt's injury, some people have told them they have no business having kids.

"I feel like we should be afforded all the same hopes and dreams that everybody else has," she says. "I don't think because he is injured, we should have any less dreams than anyone else."

After four years of dealing with the VA, Tracy Keil says she has developed a reputation as a fighter. It's a part of her role as caretaker that she takes very seriously, but she looks forward to a day when she won't have to waste her valuable energy fighting for their benefits.

"Despite what the VA must think, I don't enjoy fighting with them for every little thing. It would be nice to just be able to just ask for something and them say 'Sure, it's in the regulations, here you go.' That would be wonderful." She says. "But the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and I squeak a lot."