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Injured vet inspires legislation

Washington -- Former Marine Lance Cpl. Josef Lopez completed his third Marine Corps Marathon on a crisp fall Sunday, one of about 60 riding hand-cranked bikes on a course that passes by memorials to Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington.

Please click above link for photo.

Peter Urban • purb[email protected] • October 26, 2009

"I felt real good until the last two miles," Lopez said. "I couldn't move my arms much after that."

The final stretch, up a hill to the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va., was awful, but the 23-year-old from Springfield did what Marines do. He grunted it out and finished in under three hours.

"Awesome," said Lopez, who has allowed his marathon training to slip while taking a full schedule of courses this semester at Missouri State.

Just over three years ago, Lopez lay in a hospital bed barely able to move. He had suffered a disabling reaction to a smallpox vaccination taken just before deploying to Iraq. About nine days after arriving in country, he felt his legs go numb.

He soon found himself paralyzed and in peril of dying. He was quickly transported to a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany and then to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he stayed for six weeks.

It was there, in Bethesda, that Lopez watched the marathon and told his mother he would be in the race the next year.

"I thought it was crazy," Barbara Lopez said. "At the time, he couldn't turn himself over."

Lopez was not an athlete in high school but enjoyed backpacking and was a percussionist in the marching band at Willard High School.

"I never really was much of a runner," he said, but the Marine Corps Marathon was a challenge he felt compelled to attack.

After returning home to Springfield, Lopez got a hand bike and began training. A year later, he finished his first marathon in around 2 1/2 hours.

The marathon itself is only part of the allure for Lopez. The weekend has also become a chance to catch up with friends, old and new. This year he met three of the nurses who helped care for him while he lay in a coma in Germany. He and his mother also met with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has introduced legislation in his name.

The legislation would allow him and others severely injured by vaccine reactions to collect a one-time payment of up to $100,000 that is now available only to service members who suffer traumatic injuries. Lopez would have been eligible for $75,000.

"This is a loophole of the worst kind," said McCaskill. "It doesn't make any sense."

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on McCaskill's bill last week. Representatives of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars testified in support of the change.

Congress included the initial benefit in a 2005 law as a one-time benefit to service members who suffered a life-altering injury. During debate on the measure, then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke in support, saying it provided an opportunity for the nation to carry out "a fundamental moral duty to take care of those men and women who've sacrificed to safeguard our freedom."

There was no opposition but the Veterans Administration determined that the law, as written, applied only to service members who suffered a traumatic injury and therefore did not apply to Lopez or others disabled by a reaction to the smallpox vaccine.

McCaskill hopes to get her bill approved this year but two chances slipped by last week. President Obama signed a V.A. health care reform bill into law and the Senate gave final approval to an annual bill that sets budget priorities for the Department of Defense -- neither included the McCaskill provision.

Barbara Lopez, a secretary at Central High School, first brought the issue to McCaskill's attention last year. The money, she said, would be a help.

"There was a big financial hardship for us that we just had to deal with," she said. "I've worked two jobs ever since, trying to pay people back who loaned me money, and Joe has ongoing expenses."

Barbara Lopez took a leave from her job to be at her son's hospital bedside for nearly two months. While she kept her secretary job, she lost two night jobs. Shortly after Lopez returned to Springfield to begin physical rehabilitation, his father died from a long illness.

Lopez also had to widen doors in his house and get a wheelchair ramp. He spent about a year in a wheelchair but is now able to walk with a limp for short distances. He is on medication to control spasms in his legs. His medical expenses have been covered by the VA since he was discharged in June, and he is attending college on the GI bill.

Barbara Lopez has written a soon to be published book, "First One Home," that documents the family's experiences since Lopez suffered an acute reaction to the smallpox vaccine.

While her focus has been on securing the $75,000 benefit, Barbara Lopez also wonders why the military continues to vaccinate against smallpox.

The military began the smallpox vaccination program in 2003 largely out of concern that Saddam Hussein would use biological weapons against U.S. troops.

The last case of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949 and the last naturally occurring case in the world occurred in Somalia in 1977. The World Health Organization determined in 1980 that a global vaccination campaign had been successful in eliminating naturally occurring smallpox from the world.