Did USAA Wrongfully Deny This Wounded Veteran’s Insurance Claim?

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Former Special Forces communications sergeant John Wayne Walding is a decorated U.S. Army veteran. Literally born on the 4th of July, Walding served on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan where he earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart.

He sustained major injuries in a firefight against about 200 enemy combatants, alongside just 11 fellow warriors, on April 6, 2008, in Afghanistan’s Shok Valley. Despite his injuries, Walding fought on for another four hours and made a 20-foot drop from a cliff as he and his team were extracted from the intense firefight.

All seemed quiet as they approached the compound. They knew the enemy was waiting for them, but were unable to tell where. When the lead element came to within a few hundred meters of the compound, they began to receive heavy fire from all directions. What ensued was a six-and-a-half-hour firefight, during which the team called in Air Force F-15s for danger-close air support 70 times. More than 150 insurgents were killed in the fight. But but due to approaching weather, rising casualties for the team, and nearly 200 insurgents closing in on their position, they were forced to withdraw.

Unfortunately, the approach route the team used to reach the village had been cut off. Stuck between a hail of gunfire and the edge of a cliff, their only option was to go down the cliff face. With intense firing still coming upon them, the team quickly scaled the mountain using rocks and branches growing out of the cliff. Every member of the team had sustained some form of injury, so the less injured helped the more critical casualties down the sheer face. Walding, having been shot near the knee by a sniper, tied his nearly severed leg to his thigh and began his descent. In order to reach the solid ground below, once he reached the bottom of the climb he, along with the others, had to make a 20-foot drop.

Walding lost his leg as a result of the injuries he suffered in the Shok Valley battle. He later became a certified Green Beret sniper instructor, the first for an amputee in American history. He retired from the military in 2013 and returned to his native Texas.

Walding’s wounds from the fight include both leg and brain injuries, which occasionally result in functional difficulties. The Dallas Morning News’ Watchdog picks up what happened to Walding earlier this year while he was just trying to fill up the fuel tank on his truck. I recently heard about his fight and decided to look into it.

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In February, at the filling station, he filled up his truck with gasoline instead of the required diesel. He says he sometimes makes mistakes.

He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury from all the noise he endured and battles he fought (10!) in his dozen years of service.

At that gas station, “I just had a moment,” he says. “I have memory problems. It really is humbling.”

Does his [USAA auto insurance] policy cover something like [the damage to his truck as a result of using the wrong fuel]? His two lawyers, Bryan J. Wick and Noah H. Nadler — who are representing him for free — say they can prove he should be covered. Even so, [his] USAA phone app told him to fix the truck. “We’ll take care of the rest.” That should count for something.

USAA, which caters to veterans and veterans’ families, at first told him, via the app, that the $9000+ damage done would be covered. So he had the repairs made. Then, according to Walding, after the repairs were made, USAA declined to cover the cost, leaving him stuck with the massive bill.

Most veterans don’t have the means to fight an insurance giant on a claim of this size. Walding has retained attorneys, who, as noted above, have taken the case for free, so that he can fight. And fight he has, for going on six months now. There are court cases backing USAA’s view, that engine repair typically isn’t covered under auto insurance policies, and cases backing Walding’s side, that they can be covered by insurance. The traumatic brain injury he sustained in battle, which relates directly to what happened at the gas station that day in February, is surely relevant too.

DMN’s Watchdog contacted an outside expert, adjunct professor at UT-Austin Ronen Avraham, who speculates that USAA’s outside attorneys are working on billable hours and thus are incentivized to fight the case rather than settle and honor the claim, despite the fact that it may tarnish USAA’s image with veterans — their core customers. Without going into any detail, that makes a great deal of sense based on my experience with attorneys causing major public relations problems, and then leaving it to others to repair the extensive damage.

Watchdog also details a few other cases in which it says USAA has let veterans down.

I haven’t looked at those cases, and like most veterans, have a positive view of USAA. But this seems pretty simple to me. The longer the case drags on, the more likely it is to damage the company’s image. The fact is, John Wayne Walding has a screenshot of the official USAA app telling him the insurer would “take care of” his claim. He made his next decision based on that communication. USAA should honor what it said and make Walding whole on this.

With a name like John Wayne Walding, and a birth date on the Fourth of July, and with a war record like his — the former Green Beret isn’t going to stand down.

Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries. He’s a writer, producer, veteran, author, and Texan.

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