City Matters: War vet needs help this Christmas
December 04. 2013 10:47PM
Two years ago, Christopher Viorritto was a sailor with a rank of petty officer first class, almost 13 years of experience, and a record that included servicing combat aircraft aboard the USS Ronald Reagan during the war in Afghanistan.
Today, his family of five is on food stamps and survives off a $1,400 monthly stipend from the GI Bill, as well as seasonal work at Target. They live with his parents. And his wife doesn't have the health insurance she needs for a biopsy on her breasts and lymph nodes.
Basically, Viorritto got a pink slip from the one place it's not expected — the military.
The Navy insists Viorritto and another 2,945 sailors discharged two years ago were not jettisoned for cost-cutting reasons; it just had too many people of Viorritto's rank working in certain job classifications.
Even if you believe that, it's pretty startling. Behind all the slick commercials about finding yourself (Army of One) and protecting our country, the Pentagon is acting like a business.
People like Viorritto are really just like the guy who works a machine or a cashier at the local supermarket. Work as hard as you can for as long as we want, then it's a handshake, a check and transition assistance.
Viorritto is third-generation Navy. He signed up in 1999, and was stationed in Japan and the West Coast. Some years, he would ship out for months at a time. His last station was Whidbey Island, Wash.
There, he supervised sailors who calibrated test equipment used to repair avionics gear, he said. He trained lower ranks and managed personnel issues such as vacations and sick days. He wrote PowerPoint lectures about topics such as operational risk management.
His Japanese-born wife had given birth to their third child, a daughter, about a month before Viorrito and another 40 petty officers were brought into a room and told they were being discharged.
"I thought, 'This can't be happening,'" said Viorritto, who is 35. "I kept up with my training, put my focus on doing the best job I could."
Technically, his discharge papers say it was for weight-control failure, but Viorritto said he had lost five of the 20 pounds he was supposed to drop, and people with worse weight issues survived.
His mother, Barbara "Bobbi" Viorritto, is herself a Navy veteran. She said the service targeted the middle ranks — noncommissioned officers with costly families and future retirements — and left the inexpensive, young recruits.
Kind of, the Navy says.
Three years ago, the Navy looked at its force, and it found that it had too many people with mid-level ranks — E-4 through E-7 — in certain job classifications. So in order to make sure that the younger recruits had a career path, it discharged the higher ranks.
"This was not a cost-cutting move. It was about freeing up spaces and advancement opportunity in the overmanned jobs," Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Servello said.
Servello said the Navy took numerous criteria into account, but family status, age and retirement did not come into play.
"We realized this was not an ideal situation and learned many important lessons," Servello said. The Navy provided separation pay, transitional health care, commissary benefits and career counseling. All Viorritto could do was move home.
Their younger son, 4-year-old Rikuto, is autistic, which has its own challenges. The food he eats is expensive. The backyard fence needs to be reinforced to keep him from running into the road. And his doctors say he'd benefit from a tablet with special speech software, but it's outside the family's financial reach at this point.
(I found out about the Viorrittos when they turned to the Union Leader Santa Fund for the Salvation Army for help with Christmas gifts.)
The family has been on food stamps — $632 a month — but the benefits expire this year, and Viorritto is unsure whether they will be renewed.
The VA pays for dad's health care. And Medicaid pays for the kids. But state welfare case workers told Ayako Viorritto that she needs to find a job with health benefits. Her doctor wants the biopsies, and Catholic Medical Center has said it will cover the hospital cost. But Ayako must find a surgeon and anesthesiologist, Bobbi said.
Expect to see a lot more of this in the future.
Last month, the Army Times and Air Force Times reported on congressional hearings where generals predicted significant cutbacks in uniformed troops. In both the Army and Air Force, discharges could run into the tens of thousands.
Servello said the current budget environment will likely affect the Navy too.
Viorritto said he misses the structure of Navy life. He still talks about his Navy days with fondness and still uses the pronoun "we" when speaking about the Navy.
He blames the mess on President Obama. "He sent all that aid money to the auto industry to protect their jobs, but how did he pay for that? With military jobs."
He is taking classes in electrical technology at Manchester Community College. He hopes to graduate in about 1 1/2 years and thinks he could get a job in the wireless industry. Until then, he and his family will just skimp and hang on.
"We've been very lucky," said his mother. "We really haven't done without, but we're so on the edge."
The generosity of Santa Fund donors makes it possible for the holidays to still be a joyful time. The Santa Fund makes food, clothing and gifts available during the holiday season, so ﬁnancially stressed families can put their resources toward paying bills for basic needs.
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Call Shannon Sullivan at 206-7833 for more information.
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org