DETROIT (AP) – For Matthew Pennington, a soldier who lost one leg and part of the other in combat in Iraq nearly 20 months ago, a near-fatal drunken-driving accident in September marked the low point in his struggle to get his life back on track.

Traveling at what police later told him was about 55 mph, Pennington drove into the wall of the Bank of America building on Exchange Street in Bangor.

“It was my statement: ‘I am done,”‘ said the 24-year-old paratrooper from Detroit, Maine. He had turned to alcohol, he said, out of frustration in dealing with his physical injuries and the demons that followed him home from the war.

Pennington had been fitted with a prosthetic leg that he hoped to someday use to run a marathon. But when the leg broke in June and Pennington was unable to get it fixed, he lost a measure of his independence.

A months-long delay in getting his leg fixed was the first of what he said was a series of barriers that prevented him from getting the help he needed through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

After the crash in Bangor, Pennington started receiving treatment for the post-traumatic stress disorder he had been diagnosed with more than a year before. Other help came after he and his wife began speaking publicly about their problems. On Thursday he was fitted with new parts for his prosthetic leg, which turned out to be a vast improvement.

“It feels great. I am not limping any more. I am not using my cane,” he said.

Pennington was on his second tour in Iraq and had served one tour in Afghanistan, when he fell victim to an explosive device that detonated next to his Humvee.

On his return to Maine, after more than a dozen operations at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he looked forward to going to college and a career in politics in which he could help other returning veterans.

But he said he’s still waiting for the benefits he needs to get an education and move on with his life.

Pennington said medical care at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Togus has not measured up to what he was promised, nor to the care his friends in the military receive in other states.

While barred by law from commenting specifically about Pennington’s case, an official at Togus said Veterans Affairs works hard to meet the needs of Maine veterans.

“I would consider it very rare that (veterans) fall through the cracks,” said Jim Doherty, assistant to the director of the VA Center.



Information from: Morning Sentinel, http://www.onlinesentinel.com/

AP-ES-12-23-07 1235EST


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