Congressman Bishop chats with veteran Bruce Sykes before giving him...

Congressman Bishop chats with veteran Bruce Sykes before giving him a government check for $55,600 in retroactive benefits from being wrongly denied a VA claim in 1999. Mr. Sykes says he had multiple knee surgeries based on a service-related disability. The ceremony took place at a Southold town senior center in Mattituck. (Aug. 20, 2010) Credit: Randee Daddona

Bruce Sykes stood uncomfortably in front of about 50 people at a Mattituck senior citizens center on Friday, ending a 10-year odyssey that left him deeply in debt and, he said, "nearly homeless."

He was uncomfortable because he cannot stand for more than a few minutes without pain. It's been that way since he wrenched his knee while in the Air Force, and the problem has persisted even though his knee was surgically replaced. And he was uncomfortable because he isn't used to speaking in public.

But he overcame those problems to publicly thank Rep. Tim Bishop, whose staff managed to get a decade of Veterans Affairs rejections reversed, and qualify Sykes for $376 in monthly disability payments from the Veterans Affairs.

Sykes, 52, was also uncomfortable being in the spotlight because he was just handed a big Styrofoam check for $55,600 in retroactive benefits payments.

"This is a ceremonial check," Bishop (D-Southampton) told the crowd. "He has the real one."

Sykes and his wife, Diane, have put the money to good use. The first thing he did was write a $6,000 check to his Mattituck landlord to cover six months of back payments. Then he started paying off his other bills, like his car and insurance.

"There wasn't enough money coming in to pay the mortgage and for medicines," he said. "I kept writing promissory notes."

Sykes was born in West Virginia, and left to join the Navy in 1975, partly because it was a family tradition and partly because the coal mines were closing and jobs were scarce. He served two years, then enlisted in the Air Force, serving from 1980 to 1988. He injured his knee in a training run while in the Air Force and had a total knee replacement, and said his leg has never been the same.

An aide for Bishop said the VA initially decided that the injury he sustained while serving was only a minor factor in his knee problem and gave him only small disability payments at first. The payments later halted after his case was reviewed.

He still gets up each morning in pain, and the leg is sometimes swollen, even though he goes to therapy twice a week.

Sykes has held down jobs as a teller for North Fork Bank and as a cashier for The Home Depot, and said both employers allowed him to sit on a stool instead of standing.

But he has been out of work for two years - he is one of the "99ers" who have used up 99 weeks of unemployment and extended unemployment.

"Jobs are hard to find on the North Fork," he said.

Now, his long-range plans involve going back to school and training to be a nurse. And, he said, he will never again have to decide between paying rent and buying medication.

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