OKLAHOMA - Service members are often given severance when the military downsizes and closes bases, but now in some cases years later the government is taking that money back.
Under federal law, until veterans pay back their involuntary separation pay, they can have their VA disability withheld.
Tim Foster, an Oklahoma veteran, is trying to change that by changing the law.
“It feels like a slap in the face. It really does,” he said.
Foster started his military career at 23.
The marine served for 12 years with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before his world changed.
“I got an honorable discharge in August of 2014,” he said.
He was essentially laid off due to a force reduction.
He was given involuntary separation pay when he left service.
“A couple of months later, I started having some medical issues. I went to the VA. They ran some tests. They found a number of service-related medical issues,” he said.
Foster was approved for disability, but he was told by the VA there was a catch.
“Because I accepted a severance pay whenever I left the service of nearly $40,000, I'd have to pay all that back at 100 percent before I received any type of disability compensation,” he said.
Once the shock set in, the reality of what he was facing took its toll.
Unable to work because of his injuries, he went almost a year without any income at all.
He relied on friends and family to get by.
Foster said it got so bad he thought about suicide.
“Because I was in so much financial strain, I went through a divorce, bankruptcy and I just was at the end of my rope. A lot of that could have been avoided if it didn't have that huge debt that I owed the government," he said.
Somehow, he said he was able to turn that dark time into a purpose.
He’s been working for the last year to make sure this doesn't happen to other veterans.
He started a petition to get the federal law changed that requires service members to repay severance if they later become eligible for disability or retirement.
Foster has already repaid severance and now qualifies for 100 percent disability.
He said he can now focus on getting better.
He has 30 doctor appointments a month to manage.
“I was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer in my right leg due to some of the radiation I was exposed to while I was in service. I had to have that removed," he said. "Also, I have severe depressive disorder and PTSD due to the wars I was fighting in, the battles I was in, the friends that I lost. That sticks with me every single day."
In addition to chronic shoulder pain, a sleep disorder and liver problems, the 32-year-old has a long road ahead.
Foster is hoping to get more signatures and take his petition to Washington DC to present it to congress at the end of January.