STILL ARMY STRONG: PTSD Vet – Abused By His Officers – Still Fights For Justice

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John Cicirello wakes up at 3 a.m. every morning after another sleepless night. He washes his face and hands about seven times, dabs a little cologne, and walks out into the South Philadelphia night.

For 27 years now, Cicirello, of the 600 block of Wharton Street, worries about the people of Philadelphia so much, he believes people are out on the streets needing his help.

With the spike in gun violence and deaths in 2012, the 59-year-old veteran is lucky he hasn’t walked into a crossfire.

Cicirello is no caped crusader. But he is fighting a rare battle for justice in another realm – the military.

Cicirello, a US Army veteran, has documented he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The former ailment is not uncommon among veterans who have served in brutal combat. But Cicirello’s case is unusual. His condition arose in peacetime – from abuse by his own officers.

“The things that have happened to me,” Cicirello says, “they keep me awake. I have to get up every morning because someone outside has fallen over.”

Cicirello lives with his younger brother Robert, nephew and niece, and 93-year-old matriarch Yolanda in a rowhome adjacent to the Marshall Street Park.

“We let him go outside. It’s what he does,” Yolanda says.

For the last eight years, Cicirello has been embroiled in a lawsuit with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs. He filed that suit in 2004 to prove his phobias, anxieties, obsessions, and stress-related mental-health issues were related to his time spent in the US Army from 1970 to 1972.

If found to be true, his pension claim would be then classed as service-connected, as opposed to non-service connected.

According to its VA pension guidelines, benefits are available where the veteran had at least 90 days of active military service, at least one day of service was during a period of war, the veteran’s military discharge was under conditions other than dishonorable and there is medical evidence the veteran is totally disabled as the result of a disability not caused by his or her own willful misconduct. Cicirello fits all the eligibility criteria, but he had to prove it. He started in 2004 and it took him eight years to prove it.

Cicirello’s Veteran Affairs appeal transcript details how he was personally assaulted by a Staff Sergeant “R” and by another soldier during basic training in Fort Dix in 1970.

He was hit with a pistol belt and shovel by a sergeant who went AWOL after Cicirello brought his accusations to his Colonel.

“He (Staff Sergeant ‘R’) kicked me so hard once in the butt, I couldn’t sit down for two days,” Cicirello said. “Also, they (Sgt. ‘R’ and another officer) attacked me in the bathroom. They scrubbed my back and arms with a dry scrubbing brush so hard – after they had finished with me, my back looked like it had been squeezed out of a ketchup bottle.”

According to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, PTSD can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like combat, assault, or disaster. Most people have some stress reactions after a trauma. If the reactions don’t go away over time or disrupt your life, a veteran may have PTSD.

While stationed in Korea in 1971, Cicirello broke his arm after falling on wet floor. Cicirello claims his Sergeant refused to let him go to the hospital until he had painted the dayroom. VA Court records confirm Cicirello had to wait several hours before medical attention.

After being discharged in 1972, Cicirello entered the Army Reserve. However, medical records indicate a pattern of increased anxiety, stress, OCD, and PSTD among other stressors that eventually led to Cicirello’s being discharged from the reserves in 1976.

On Sep. 26, 1976, Cicirello was married to Lucille Bercosi of Juniper Street. They were divorced in 1980. He hasn’t seen her in 20 years, he said. He was a volunteer photojournalist between 1994 and 1995 for J. J Palumbo of the Philadelphia Exclusive.

On the corner of Delaware Avenue and Christian Street in June 1993, Cicirello was in a car accident. He has two discs in his neck and a pin in his back. It forced him to quit his job as a maintenance worker for SEPTA.

The VA provides disability benefits for veterans who do not have any service-connected disorders. In 2004, Cicirello filed a claim to related to his Non-Service-Connected Pension. After two rejections, he won his case in August 2011. He is waiting for retroactive payments he claims are owed him.

He currently lives on $1,025 per month, which is paid by the VA. He takes prescription drugs to cope with his OCD and PSTD symptoms. The court ruling in August 2011 means the VA must pay him retroactively. He is owed eight years’ back pay. He’s been waiting almost one year to receive that pay now.

While he waits, he walks around the streets worrying about people falling over and needing help. “If it wasn’t for my mom, I would be on the street with them,” he says.

“People tell me he’s only alive because of me,” says his 93-year-old mother, Yolanda Cicirello, nee Francetti. Yolando has lived on Wharton Street since 1945. Her deceased husband Carmen worked on the old Reading Railroad. She worries every day about her wounded middle child.

She says, “He has the OCD. He gets up every morning, we hear him.

“He puts on his cologne – we smell it – I don’t know why he does that – but he goes out and tries to help people.

“I worry about him, but he’s a really good boy.” /RORY McGLASSON

VETERAN JOHN CICIRELLO, of 600 block of Wharton Street, won a Veterans Affairs court case in August 2011, proving he was physically abused during his time in the Army between 1970 and 1972. He suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He is waiting for VA to reconfigure his pension. Photo: Rory McGlasson

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