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He Is a Veteran With a Disability — But Not Technically a Disabled Veteran

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Just before 11:30 a.m., Joe Borsky is watching the clock.

The ex-soldier and athlete will rise from bed, transition to a shiny gray wheelchair and begin an hourlong window of exercise that is his only reprieve from the day.

Before February, Borsky had looked forward to a major national track and field event in Portland. Now he counts the hours until the next morning’s lap around the veteran’s home in Lebanon, Oregon. 

To lie there in a bed after so much mobility is strange. But Borsky is burning through virtually all of his income by existing, paying for a room as a veteran with a disability — but not, technically, a disabled veteran.

“I don’t know what the future is,” Borsky said. “There’s nothing to take hold of.”

Pressure

Borsky can’t feel the wound that’s gnawing at his body.

His legs and the lower half of his body have been dead to touch since the 1990s when a bullet severed the nerves which translate pressure against his skin into electro-chemical impulses sent to his brain.

But pressure is exactly the problem. Borsky’s lower body is ulcerated where it frequently contacts seats for extended periods of time.

“I felt healthy. I felt alive,” Borsky said. “I had a purpose. That, to me, is living.”

He was very active — sports and driving all over the Willamette Valley for work. Yet even as Borsky was always moving, his lower body mostly was in one position:

Seated.

Borsky was rolling his chair 5 to 10 miles each day, training ahead of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in July.

He frequently left his apartment in Lebanon for work, driving a Chrysler Town & Country van customized with a lift ramp and hand controls.

Borsky said he found an outlet for exercise and independence. He had mobility. He had ability and confidence.

He saw his routine, his stop-for-nothing philosophy as an example to others.

Especially to those with disabilities.

“There’s more. There’s more you can do. There’s hope,” Borsky said. “And when everything is in the hands of the VA, I feel hopeless.”

Bed rest

His schedule looks more like a student’s now, playing games on the internet or cramming in reading. Borsky’s interests lately are in health care and social justice.

A quiet pump called a wound vac hanging from a hospital bed or his wheelchair churns constantly, working to keep closed the flesh around Borsky’s pressure sore.

Borsky props himself up, rolling onto his left side to keep weight off the right side of his pelvis.

With the first hot days of the year approaching, Borsky effectively is frozen in place. Doctor’s orders were to remain on a warm, puffed-up mattress full of churning silicone beads.

Borsky said he feels a lot of anxiety thinking about the next year he likely will spend in the same place.

“I want life!” Borsky said. “I don’t want to simply exist in a bed.”

In December, practitioners working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs told Borsky he needs surgery. Unable to close the wound, his bones and soft tissue could become infected and trigger sepsis.

The pressure sore could shock Borsky, meaning he risks dying of organ failure.

And in February, Borsky was told to lay down.

Borsky has to remain in bed ahead of the procedure that eventually will close the wound, relocating nearby muscle and blood supply to help Borsky’s body heal itself.

“I’ve already overcome a lot of that, and now this is devastating,” Borsky said.

Borsky’s been here before. A surgeon in 2017 performed a similar procedure for a similar injury, preventing potentially life-threatening infection in an open wound.

He moved to Lebanon from Seattle, staying for a few months at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home.

He said he did everything right — got a job, found meaningful hobbies.

But a lot has changed in six years, Borsky said. The demand on the health care industry during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed hospital systems.

More people seem to need more help than ever with baby boomers retiring.

A scheduler at VA Puget Sound told Borsky it’ll be mid-2024 before he sees a surgeon.

Borsky said he had to stop himself from asking whether the time frame was a joke.

“She was serious. And she sounded sorry,” Borsky said.

Borsky said there are five veterans in front of him with a roughly three-month-per-veteran wait time.

“Essentially they’re saying, stay in bed for 15 months,” he said.

Gunshot

Borsky said he served in the U.S. Army from 1983 to 1989, more than six years of active duty work in the military.

He was an infantry soldier, then trained into a job as a legal specialist. He investigated noncriminal offenses, called Article 15 violations, and separations.

Borsky was an Army National Guard volunteer after that.

He said he grew up in Coos Bay, where he could roam with friends across the South Coast in vast public spaces favored by tourists and locals for boating and four-wheeling.

“There was a lot to do. Hunting, fishing, the dunes,” Borsky said.

Borsky’s life took on an edge of stimulation seeking, looking for the next adventure.

Then a 33-year-old Gresham man dropped Borsky with a gunshot.

Borsky was working as a bouncer at Jody’s Bar & Grill on Glisan Street out past 120th Avenue. It was 1993, and he had just started a relationship with Victoria Tanner, who co-owned the notorious East Portland topless bar.

News media called Eric Saling an ex-boyfriend of Tanner’s. He showed up around 8 a.m. April 23, a Friday, with a gun.

When he saw a .44-caliber revolver in the man’s hand, Borsky said he moved to intercept Saling.

Saling fired the gun from just feet away. The bullet entered Borsky’s groin.

He fired again, muzzle pointed at Tanner’s head. He pointed the gun at Borsky and fired again.

Borsky said Saling pointed the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger once more.

The Oregonian reported Saling died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and that Borsky, then 27, survived his wounds.

But “I reached lows,” Borsky said.

His dad died. He struggled to find a stride in his life when his legs moved only where he dragged them. Borsky said he took refuge in substance abuse and became dependent on drugs.

“I was trying to crawl out of that hole,” he said.

Disability

After a decade, Borsky found a way out. He took up work finding people work, employed as a vocational consultant in the Willamette Valley.

He replaced his wheelchair with an ultralight titanium model, lighter and faster and more nimble on a basketball court. That was his favorite pastime, Borsky said.

“If you can refocus and find imagination, that’s key — you think, ‘OK, this is life.'”

He has friends. He has hobbies. And there was his morning exercise. It provided a guaranteed fix, of sorts, a burst of activity he could look forward to.

Borsky said he found pushing his chair is the best exercise ahead of javelin and shot put events.

Now he’s pushing a crowdfunding page to his friends and family, trying to find options to stay in his apartment and keep his van.

It’s $3,018 each month to stay in Lebanon. That’s against $3,160 of income.

Veterans Affairs pays for the stay of anyone who is mostly disabled by military service. Patients fall into a matrix that scores how disabled they are based on record of injuries sustained while working in the U.S. military.

Borsky’s injury, a 100% disability, followed his discharge from the Army. He doesn’t qualify to have his room covered.

Borsky said the skilled health care at the veterans home is unrivaled and will keep him healthy until his surgery date. And the price is lower than median nursing care by about 18%, according to Veterans Affairs figures.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but surely we can do something.”

There’s an option to go to an outside provider, but the wait there was even longer — patients are waiting until 2025 to see a plastic surgeon at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Borsky said.

“I need help. I need a congressman to say, ‘Hey, what can I do to fix this system?'” he said.

Borsky understands that the trend is for health care systems to be overwhelmed. But “there’s more than one plastic surgeon in the world,” he said.

He thinks the wait times show the system is flawed.

“Everyone out there is going to need health care,” he said. “We, as a whole, we have to do something to change.”

__

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