It’s the fire in the belly of wife and caregiver Ariana Del Negro that has garnered state and national attention for her advocacy in helping veterans with traumatic brain injuries receive the medical care and attention they deserve.
A Washington, D.C., native, Del Negro is no newcomer to the realm of political action, serving as an advocate for her husband and other veterans and their families for the last eight years, while continuing to negotiate the complicated bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration.
Earlier this month, Del Negro was named a fellow at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, an organization focused on helping military families nationwide. The initiative aims to recognize a caregiver in every state, and Del Negro was chosen to represent the caregivers of Montana during a visit to the White House in April.
“The foundation brings us together and allows us to express ourselves,” she said. The foundation personally funded a RAND Corp. report, which addresses the needs of caregivers.
Seven years ago, the Missoula woman testified on Capital Hill about the trials and tribulations of veterans and their caregivers, and had the opportunity to meet with other families facing the same issues. It was an experience, she said, both refreshing and comforting.
“It’s the sweetness of knowing we weren’t alone, paired with the bitterness of knowing we weren’t the exception,” she said.
Del Negro’s husband, U.S. Army Capt. Charles Gatlin, was injured during combat in 2006. A preliminary test for traumatic brain injury came in 2007.
Gatlin received a Purple Heart for his service, and was medically retired in 2008, settling back into a civilian routine but dealing with the after-effects of his injury.
When the couple moved to Montana in 2011, they registered with the Fort Harrison VA Medical Center, where Gatlin underwent a complete evaluation for any residual effects of the TBI.
According to Del Negro, the battery of tests was administered by incompetent staff, tasked to gauge disabilities for much more complex brain injuries. She filed a complaint against a psychologist in Helena who she believes practiced outside of his scope of licensing.
After an investigation, the Montana State Licensing Board of Psychologists found that there had been a violation, though the doctor continued to see patients. That changed recently, Del Negro said, after she “made enough noise” to force he begin referring veterans to neurologists.
Several calls to the Montana VA for comment on this story went unanswered.
“They say we’re being combative,” she said. “We’re not being combative; we’re defending ourselves against an agency that’s supposed to be defending us.”
Now, Gatlin has moved on to tackling issues facing veterans on the academic level, as a strong advocate and voice at the University of Montana.
“If you’re a 22-year-old kid without his legs and have a wife and young kids, and live in the middle of Nowhere, Montana, you’re in trouble because the system isn’t there to help you,” Gatlin said.
The system, he said, has systematically downgraded ratings across the board during testing. Gatlin believes that if the same protocol were followed at hospitals, it would result in employee termination.
The couple also actively serves on the advisory board for the Montana Brain Injury Center in Missoula.
The board is comprised of medical practitioners, supervisors, clinicians, researchers, advocacy groups and other professionals, all aiming to take better care of Montana veterans, said Cindi Laukes, co-chairman.
“There needs to be greater advocacy and bigger voices for our veterans who are coming back with these injuries,” she said. “Before they came to us, there had been a gap in our board, which is now more than filled through their individual efforts.”
The time spent dealing with the VA has significantly cut down on the time Del Negro has to work from home as a medical writer and writing grants for medical education.
While visiting D.C., she also plans to discuss her concerns with Montana Sen. Jon Tester, hoping that doing so will open a productive discussion about the future of veterans with TBIs.
“Where are the gaps? Where are the barriers, and how do we get through them?”
Dylan Chaffin is a journalism student at the University of Montana and a reporting intern for the Missoulian.