Disabled vet illustrates need for home tax credit

Louise and Laurence Gaskins have always taken pride in their modest home on Mary Ann Avenue, and for years it served their family well.

It lacked the flashy amenities of newer models in better neighborhoods, and the grind of traffic from nearby Pecos Road sometimes filled the air with a speedway roar, but their place was affordable for Laurence, a disabled Vietnam veteran, and Louise, a registered nurse. The couple have been married 50 years.

Laurence served his country with pride in the Air Force, spent parts of 1964 and 1965 in Vietnam, and when he returned stateside was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base. He retired in 1979 with a 10 percent disability, but like many thousands of other veterans, he had returned home poisoned by Agent Orange, which gradually manifested itself in a degenerative dementia that today has left him incapacitated and in need of Louise’s experienced care.

Their house had been fine while Laurence could still get around on his own, but as his conditioned worsened, Louise faced a problem. Their place needed to be retrofitted, but thanks to Veterans Administration bureaucratic delays, the Gaskins were unable to get timely assistance to make the substantial changes to the bathroom and bedroom that Laurence’s condition required.

In the end, Louise pulled together $35,000 — money the couple could ill afford to spend — and hired Jeff Weikel of Chermac Builders, a military veteran who specializes in residential remodels for disabled persons. Weikel, who regularly works with disabled veterans, says the VA is overwhelmed by need.

In the case of Laurence Gaskins, an early determination by the VA that he was only 10 percent disabled worked against him.

His wife not only had to care for her husband, but she also was forced to cut through bureaucratic red tape as she tried to get help with the remodel. After four years, the VA finally changed its determination.

Such experiences are relatively common as veterans and their families work through the VA process. In general, Louise said, the care her husband has received has been good.

“We really needed the VA,” she said. Although she felt let down when it came to the home help, “I can say more good things about it than bad.”

The frustration felt by the Gaskins and many other families of disabled veterans is a driving force behind the Veterans Homebuyer Accessibility Act of 2013. Introduced by Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., it is co-sponsored by Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who counts the Gaskins as constituents.

Langevin and Titus toured the Gaskins’ home earlier this month and used the experience to discuss the need for the bill, which has some bipartisan support in the politically raucous House. In brief, the bill seeks to reinstate the first-time homebuyer’s tax credit for military veterans and adds an $8,000 tax credit to assist in covering the costs of retrofitting residences of disabled service personnel.

Given the legion of disabled vets returning from battle, the legislation is not only overdue but frankly seems like a small step in a long march to get returning veterans the assistance they need.

Langevin, the first quadriplegic elected to Congress, sits on the House Armed Services Committee. Above the roar of traffic, he spoke about the moral obligation members of Congress have to provide sufficient services for U.S. veterans.

After touring the home and meeting its owners, Langevin said the Gaskins’ story “really it crystallizes the need for action.”

Trouble is, there isn’t much action these days in Congress. But despite Washington’s political divide, he says he believes the bill has a chance. (Neither side of the aisle wants to be known as the party that failed to support returning veterans.)

“We’ve been hearing a lot about the VA lately, what they do well, what the problems are, but there are so many other things that are going on outside the VA,” Titus said. “If we can provide just a little assistance with a tax credit, there isn’t any question that’s what we should be doing.”

As Langevin said, the Gaskins shouldn’t have to go it alone.

Laurence Gaskins served his country and paid a devastating price.

Helping to make his humble home accessible seems like a pretty small payment in return.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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