WASHINGTON — When Sgt. 1st Class Cameron Corder broke his back in a helicopter accident three years ago, he wasn't thinking about what paperwork he needed to file to properly document the crippling pain.
"It's an ultimate insult," the 34-year-old former soldier said. "I couldn't walk away from the helicopter. Today, I can't walk without the help of canes. I can't get myself in and out of bed. But the Army says there's no proof anything happened."
Technically, the Army has acknowledged that something happened to Corder, who was serving as a medic in Afghanistan in December 2013 when he was quickly medically evacuated from the war zone because of back problems. He has undergone numerous surgeries and procedures since, all covered as service-connected injuries.
But because of a seemingly minor paperwork mistake hours after Corder's accident, the service has refused to pay out $100,000 from a Traumatic Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance policy, claiming there wasn't a single event responsible for the soldier's injuries.
That's left the Michigan native and his wife, Bethany — now a full-time caregiver to Corder — scrambling to cover bills and expenses resulting from the injury, and wondering why military bureaucracy is fighting so hard against them.
"This whole situation has just been devastating," he said. "I was an Army man through and through. But once I got involved in this, I just wanted to get out as fast as possible."
Corder's fight comes as lawmakers and President Trump have promised to cut back on federal bureaucracy and unnecessary regulation. The new commander in chief has also instituted a hiring freeze and indicated plans to cut back on middle management throughout government agencies.
Advocates for Corder say his ordeal could be a case study in how red tape and inflexible rules can hurt families, and raises unsettling questions about how the military expects wounded troops to handle their own post-injury needs.
In a letter to Army officials, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., called the situation "a clear case of mid-level bureaucrats misapplying policy and intent at the expense of a wounded warrior."
Kildee has petitioned a host of military officials over the last few years, and brought Corder to Capitol Hill as a special guest to big events to highlight his fight. So far, it hasn't changed the Army's decision.
"It has been frustrating, that's for sure," the congressman said. "Cameron represents the best this country has to offer. Never did I imagine how much difficulty we'd face in getting him basic support."
Corder was on a routine medical mission when his accident occurred. He was treating a wounded Marine injured in a bomb blast when the man -- in a state of shock -- became violent and tackled Corder.
The pair fell to the helicopter floor, with Corder landing awkwardly on metal medical kit. "Immediate shooting pain went through my low back and down both of my legs."
Other crew members wrestled the agitated Marine away, but Corder could barely move by the time they landed back at base. He needed help walking to the base medical facility for treatment.
There, other Army medical specialists on call asked about his injury and whether he had any existing medical conditions. Corder noted that he had experienced minor back pain a few months earlier, after injuring himself lifting a patient, but said the helicopter injury was much more severe.
Over the next few days, as Corder’s condition deteriorated and he was sent back to Germany for emergency surgeries, reports of the helicopter accident went missing from his medical files. Army officials listed his injury as "a history of lower back pain" instead of a single event.
That meant that Corder’s immediate medical bills were covered by the Army, but his claim a few months later for a payout Traumatic Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance was rejected.
"The documentation provided for your event … does not indicate you suffered a loss resulting from a qualifying traumatic event," the Army’s rejection letter stated. "There is nothing in your 800+ page record which indicates or points to an event involving an altercation with a patient."
Over the last three years, Corder has submitted multiple statements from his fellow flight crew members confirming the accident, but the Army has yet to recognize them.
Service officials insist that despite numerous filings from Corder and Kildee, they only recently received a "formal" appeal of the 2014 TSGLI decision, and are still sorting through his documentation for the latest process.
Kildee called the drawn-out process infuriating.
"The Army ought to be finding every way it can to help someone like this," he said. "If there was a mistake, it’s OK to admit it. Let’s just get him what he needs."
Meanwhile, Corder said his family has gone from a "middle-class" lifestyle before his injury to financial struggles afterwards, mostly because of the loss of his wife’s income. His 10-year-old daughter had to choose between two after-school activities this year because the family doesn’t have the time or money to get her to both.
"That (TGSLI) money would be huge for us," he said. "It’s an opportunity to pay off some of our loans and debt, and a lot of that came when my wife was traveling to see me after surgery. It would be a chance to put money aside to help pay for the kids’ college."
"It would just help to dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.