After eight years in the U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Damien Ludwig was ready to go home to Ahwatukee and use the money from his saved up leave time to start his own business, but when an injury ended up needing surgery and interfered with his release date, he found out all that money he thought he had saved up could be taken away.
Ludwig left boot camp ready to work in January of 2004 and was placed on a buoy-tender ship in California in March of 2004. The ship contained a large crane that lifted buoys out of the water to be serviced.
Ludwig says he fell a few times on deck, sometimes while lifting heavy weights, and over time it all contributed to a problem in his neck and shoulder.
He went to several different doctors and physical therapists before one finally realized what was causing the pain and that he might need surgery to fix the problem.
"When I went to an orthopedic I told him I've only got X amount of months left so we need to get this taken care of by June, that's when I start my terminal leave," Ludwig explained. "He said, ‘Yeah, sounds great,' when it turns out it was a shoulder issue. The curve ball is there was also a neck issue."
Ludwig says his position is the opposite of most men in the military. Most who get injured are held in the military until they can be healed. They go through a medical board and a process that can take a year or two.
In his case Ludwig says every doctor and medical professional he talked to told him he would still get out of the Coast Guard with no problems, but that was not correct. He had surgery in April and found out Aug. 1 that he now had a new release date of Sept. 1 and thousands of dollars he'd saved up in 85 leave days had been taken away.
When he should have been able to transition out of the military and use those 85 days, now he was being forced to sell the days back for much less than it was worth.
"In the very beginning, on Aug. 1, when this went down they were telling me it was my fault because I didn't read the manual," Ludwig said. "It says in the manual somewhere that if a surgery or a hospitalization interferes with a voluntary separation date, which is what my original separation was, they can give you 30 days. It's an 800- or 900-page manual and this is two sentences in it.
"The problem is none of my admin people ever did anything. They basically just said, ‘Oh you'll be fine,' and I just went off of what the professionals who do this for a daily job said."
Now Ludwig will be out of the Coast Guard in September but won't be able to come home until October, when he hopes to be cleared by his doctor. Until then he'll be living in California, which costs much more than living in Arizona.
He was planning on returning to Arizona State University and taking up the GI Bill and starting a business, but now he says it'll be much tougher to get started.
It's a sour ending to a job Ludwig says he really enjoyed.
"I've been a part of all these great things and I went from a great feeling and a great high note and feeling good about making that transition out and now it's kind of like people just kind of say ‘Well, wish we could help you more,'" Ludwig said. "What I did with my time in the Coast Guard was mine. It was great and that's all I really care about, but being treated like it's just a system issue and no one can help is just a bummer. I try not to hold the entire organization accountable for a few people's errors."
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