The Enemy We Trusted

It was 1940's northern New Jersey, an idyllic part of the state known for its rolling cornfields and dairy farms. It was late May and the warm spring winds carried the smell of honeysuckle and fresh cut grass down the tree lined streets. Kids played stickball in the vacant lots oblivious to the concerned conversations their parents carried on about a war half a world away.

Meanwhile, the local high school students gathered around the soda fountain at the pharmacy to discuss their upcoming graduation and what the future would hold for them. Outside the store was a news rack with papers from New York, Philadelphia and Easton with bold headlines telling the story of the day, “War Escalates in the Pacific”. Inside the store the group tried to enjoy themselves but knew that in just a few months, many would be leaving for battle with the possibility that some would not return. John was one of those young men with those thoughts.

As the second oldest child in an Irish-American family, service was a way of life. His father served, his uncles served and of course, he was expected to follow in their footsteps. His oldest brother, Phillip, was already in the Pacific theater, as it was called.

John would watch the joy in his parent's faces when the mailman came hoping for a letter from their son but dreading a letter from the Department of War. Every strange car that went up the road became the object of fear for them, hoping to never see two Army Officers heading for their door. It could only mean one thing and no one ever discussed it.

But now it was John’s turn. At the age of 18, he would soon be heading off to the South Pacific, the paradise he read so much about in his school books. Stories that conjured images of warm winds blowing off the calm sea, jostling the grass skirts of the beautiful women who went about their business on the white sands. He imagined the gently waving palm trees, swaying in the breeze, dropping the occasional coconut allowing the finder to enjoy its cool water and sweet flesh. But based on the letters he read from his brother, this was no longer the paradise portrayed in romantic novels. It had become a killing field. In just a few short months, John would go from the innocence of the Garden State to the bloody hell known as Okinawa.

When signing up for service, John’s interests were quite simple, he loved farm animals and wanted to be a vet, a career path that sent him to the battlefield as a medic. His experiences on the farm of helping deliver stubborn calves or applying salve to open sores on the legs of horses did not prepare him for what he was about to see in battle.

Just months from the innocence of a high school dance , John was dodging enemy gunfire. As his 18 year-old peers back in New Jersey were swimming in the local quarries and dancing the night away at the local club, John was picking up pieces of humans, some of whom were the buddies he had dined with just hours before, from the mud and humidity of the Pacific. He was barely out of high school yet doing the work that even the most experienced doctors back in the states have never done. The breezes he once imagined swaying the island palms now carried the smell of burning oil, the sulfur odor of gunpowder and the sickeningly sweet stench of blood that seemed to stay in his sinuses for decades.

What kept John going was the hope that he would meet up with his brother at some point. He had not heard from him in months but knew he was out there somewhere. Sadly, what John did not know was that his brother Phil had been killed just a month earlier in Iwo Jima. This was the reality of war.

Upon John’s completion of service, his family remarked that he was not the same but no one dared to say this out loud. Few veterans spoke about the horrors they saw and even fewer would admit that they were scarred by the experience. For John, he lost his brother, his friends and even more importantly, he lost himself.

John came home to New Jersey just barely 23 years old yet felt like he was 75. Loud noises caused unbelievable anxiety for him and the sound of silence seemed even louder. The sight of oil stains on the road elicited memories of blood spattered truck beds where bodies and pieces of them were tossed for evacuation back to the base where soldiers, most still too young to have a beer, were tasked with trying to match limbs with torsos. During the day, he was too tired to find a job and at night he was too awake to get rest. Every time he closed his eyes he relived the battlefield.

In those days, it was called “battle fatigue” or “shell shock”, today we know this as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Returning veterans did not talk about this for fear of being ridiculed. “Be a man”, they were told. For John, being a man meant pulling up a stool at Kosa’s Pub where he treated himself with whatever liquor he could afford. Each glass somehow provided relief for the demons of war. But even in his steepest stupor, he was never at peace.

As John aged, he was unable to hold down any meaningful employment but did work from time to time at a local gas station doing menial tasks making enough money to keep him in alcohol. His veteran’s pension helped pay the rent for a rat infested rooming house he shared with other vets down on their luck.

Then, John’s cousin suggested he move into his garage, which would be made over into a living area. All John had to do was give him his pension check and he would be provided with three meals a day, a place to live with all utilities included. John jumped at the chance.

As time went by, he began to realize the promises were lies but no one believed him. He became known as the drunk in the shed. On a good day, John was lucky to receive a sandwich for lunch or a bowl of canned beef stew for dinner. He had very few clothes and even lacked the most basic of hygiene supplies.

Neighbors who saw John wearing flannel shirts in the heat of summer or shorts in sub-zero weather chalked it up to his alcoholism. He became the butt of jokes from the adults in the community and the neighborhood children enjoyed teasing him whenever he went out for a walk. He soon became a recluse.

Meantime, the cousin who took John’s money and forced him into this lifestyle was viewed as a “saint” by the neighbors who admired how he “took care” of the crazy guy. It ended on one chilly March night when John was found dead in his bed, succumbing to a cirrhotic liver. A proud American veteran, a man who had given all he had for the country, died in squalor in a shabby garage in northern New Jersey.

The story of John is true, as told to me by a family member. Although this happened some four decades ago, these stories are still all too common today.

Recently in New York State, an elderly Marine Corp veteran was held hostage in a motel room that by any standards was unfit for occupancy. The room, loaded with trash and human waste, was home to this 81-year-old American hero. In this case, police arrested Perry Coniglio, 43, and charged him with unlawful imprisonment, grand larceny and endangering an incompetent person.

The veteran, when rescued, told the police he thought he was in the room for “only four days” however evidence indicated he had been there for more than four years. The criminal complaint stated that the veteran was suffering from advanced dementia and was physically threatened and beaten with sticks on a regular basis.

He was fed one bowl of cereal a day while Coniglio, the abuser, cashed and spent the veteran’s social security checks, pension checks and food stamps. Even more disturbing, other residents of the motel were aware of this situation and even brought him food from time to time.

According to the local newspaper, one neighbor said she would see the veteran being yelled at and walking around naked outside. “He didn’t deserve to be treated like that, especially being a veteran,” Natasha Blanc told Hudson Valley News Network. “He deserved food and water and shelter — not abuse. I hope the old guy gets the kind of care that he deserves.”

Many witnessed his abuse and humiliation but no one bothered to call the authorities. The veteran has now been hospitalized.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, four elderly plaintiffs residing in some of that state’s retirement communities owned by Holiday Retirement, Inc., or its affiliates sued Holiday (and its associated companies) in the Circuit Court of Oregon, Multnomah County, for harm the plaintiffs allege they incurred when Holiday induced them to sign rental agreements under duress. The complaint alleged that Holiday induced them to sign rental documents, promising that they would be eligible for a veterans' benefit program that would cover much of the rent.

Sadly, this did not happen. The complaint reports that the residents never received the aid promised or if they did receive the help, it was at an inadequate rate to cover the rental costs. The complaint also detailed allegations that the rental company put significant pressure on the elderly victims, including leaning on them to sign complicated legal documents without time to review or understand them. The vets are now facing homelessness.

In Sebring, Florida, a 23-year marine veteran, who served two tours in Vietnam and received seven battle stars and at least one bronze star, was financially exploited by three people, one being his grandson.

Arrested in connection with this case and charged with theft were the veteran’s grandson, Joseph Ryan Binger, 23, 417 Oak St., Sebring; Binger’s girlfriend, Mariesa Louise Turner, 19, 3613 Sebring Parkway, Sebring; and Rebekah Danielle Smith, 17, of Sebring.

The investigation leading to the charges began when the veteran’s children, who serve as power of attorney, discovered numerous fraudulently written and cashed checks from his bank account. According to the affidavit, his children took steps to prevent continuing exploitation but were not able to stop it.

Further, the grandson is alleged to have checked his grandfather out of an assisted living facility twice and to take him to the bank to make withdrawals. At least three of the veteran’s checks that were cashed included signatures that were not his handwriting.

In Rhode Island, a woman who was a volunteer for the local fire department for over thirty years and the wife of a veteran was murdered by a family member. Just one day before the horrific crime, her husband had filed a criminal complaint against Raymond Paiva, their grandson, who was suspected of stealing checks and jewelry to feed a drug habit.

The very next day, Paiva attempted to cash a $400 check at a local supermarket when suspicious employees called the veteran and informed him what was happening. Upon arriving back at his house, he found his 66-year-old wife with a pillow over her face and a white plastic garbage bag over her head with the drawstring pulled tight.

Her purse was on the floor open and her car was missing from the driveway. Paiva and his girlfriend were eventually found in Providence where they refused to follow police directions and were eventually shot. Both did survive and told the story of killing the woman and then removing the jewelry from her lifeless body.

Unfortunately, these stories occur on an all too regular basis to our older veterans who depend on unscrupulous caretakers for their daily existence. But it is not just the elderly vets who are victimized. Today, many of our younger veterans are returning from the battlefield with serious physical disabilities or traumatic brain injuries making them especially vulnerable for such exploitation. It is not an exaggeration to call this a national tragedy.

The National Adult Protective Services Association reports these facts:

  • One in nine seniors reported being abused, neglected or exploited in the past twelve months; the rate of financial exploitation is extremely high, with 1 in 20 older adults indicating some form of perceived financial mistreatment occurring in the recent past

  • Elder abuse is vastly under-reported; only one in 44 cases of financial abuse is ever reported

  • Abused seniors are three times more likely to die and elder abuse victims are four times more likely to go into a nursing home

  • 90% of abusers are family members or trusted others

  • Almost one in ten financial abuse victims will turn to Medicaid as a direct result of their own monies being stolen from them

  • Cognitive impairment and the need for help with activities of daily living make victims more vulnerable to financial abuse

So how can you tell if exploitation is occurring? Here are some things to watch for:

  • The elder is confined and restrained to his or her home

  • Visitation by other family members and friends is restricted

  • Sudden changes in bank account or banking practice, including an unexplained withdrawal of large sums of money by a person accompanying the elder

  • The inclusion of additional names on an elder’s bank signature card

  • Unauthorized withdrawal of the elder’s funds using the elder’s ATM card

  • Abrupt changes in a will or other financial documents

  • Unexplained disappearance of funds or valuable possessions

  • Substandard care being provided or bills unpaid despite the availability of adequate financial resources

  • Discovery of an elder’s signature being forged for financial transactions or for the titles of his/her possessions

  • Sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to an elder’s affairs and possessions

  • Unexplained sudden transfer of assets to a family member or someone outside the family

  • The provision of services that are not necessary

  • An elder’s report of financial exploitation.

If you or someone you love is elderly and vulnerable to the undue influence of others and could become the target of an unscrupulous person, an experienced elder law attorney can help to determine whether legal protections are needed like guardianship, conservatorship or a power of attorney.

If financial exploitation is already underway, give us a call at 401-724-9400 and our staff can discuss potential legal remedies like an elder abuse lawsuit or other legal claims.

No one should ever be exposed to such exploitation and in the case of our veterans, to take away from someone who has given so much is especially heinous.

Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.

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