A "military man through and through," Jonathan Cullifer devoted his life to serving his country, only to have the favor go unreturned when he came home.
The 38-year-old Army and Marine veteran returned to Sacramento in 2008 after he was badly injured in Iraq in a vehicle detonation. Eventually earning a full-disability rating, his injuries – both physical and psychological – left him unable to work.
The bureaucracies of the claims process made a bad situation dire. His VA claim had been pending for five years because a service officer from another veterans organization had mishandled it. Also in limbo were a hardship request to VA and a claim for Social Security Disability. This left state disability as Cullifer’s only source of income.
When it was set to run out in April of this year, Cullifer was in jeopardy of not being able to pay his rent and provide for his family of seven. Begrudgingly, he reached out to the Sacramento Vet Center. His request was passed on to local Legion District Commander Henry Sanchez, who immediately raised $1,000 for Cullifer and helped him through the process of filing for Temporary Financial Assistance.
"Little did I know my email would garner such a quick response," Cullifer says. "I’d say within six hours, I was getting calls from Commander Sanchez, asking if he could come by and talk to me."
It’s tragic when any veteran falls through the proverbial cracks of the system, but Cullifer’s extensive service background and family situation make it even more heart-wrenching. Cullifer spent nearly two decades serving his country in two different branches, deploying multiple times and working personal security detail for President Bill Clinton – an honorable duty bestowed to only 60 Marines a year. He’s also a cancer survivor, having beaten a form of the disease that was linked to his service. After making a full recovery in 2003, he re-enlisted, this time with the Army.
"I am a military man through and through," he says. "That’s all I am, that’s all I know."
Through his service, an enormous amount of pride has emerged. But his responsibilities to his family trumped those feelings, so when he faced eviction and not being able to provide for them in March, he choked down that pride and sent an email to a local veterans assistance coordinator, asking for help. The email eventually reached Sanchez’s inbox.
"This combat veteran was not only suffering from his mental and physical injuries, but he was suffering from the process," Sanchez says. "This upset many people, including myself, to no end."
Sanchez spoke briefly with Cullifer on the phone, then called an emergency meeting for his district’s post commanders to approve a $1,000 disbursement of funds to the Cullifer family. This happened in the span of one Friday. By Saturday afternoon, Sanchez was sitting in Cullifer’s dining room, helping the veteran fill out his Temporary Financial Assistance application to be mailed to Legion National Headquarters. Sanchez presented Cullifer the $1,000 check as he was walking out the door.
Other donations and gifts, in the form of clothes and groceries, rolled in. They came from local posts, the Blue Star Mothers and the local Elks Lodge.
"I didn’t need to convince anybody that this was a sincere cry for help ..." Sanchez says. "I instantaneously started receiving responses from my Legion posts in the 6th District."
The turnaround on the TFA application was as immediate. Cullifer mailed it on March 22 and by March 27 had in his hands a $1,875 check from National Headquarters to bring his rent current.
"I was shocked, and I still to this day am shocked," Cullifer says. "Prior to this, I had no idea these programs existed."
Cullifer is thankful to the Legion and the local Legionnaires not only for the assistance he’s received, but for the purpose they’ve helped him find in his post-service life. He recently joined the Legion and became adjutant of his post - all to repay the Legion and help veterans who fall victim to the system like he did.
"A part of me wants to repay the Legion with blood, sweat and tears," he says. "Anything I can do to facilitate other veterans who don’t know that this type of assistance is available if they need it."
Now Cullifer has added becoming a veterans advocate to a long list of life achievements, which include receiving the Purple Heart Medal, earning a master’s degree, serving his country for 17 years, beating cancer and becoming a father to five children.
No one is prouder of him than Sanchez.
"The pride that he has instilled in himself, it’s infectious," Sanchez says. "It’s something to see and something to enjoy. He is going to be able to share his experience with what he went through and how we were able to help him, and if that saves one more vet, then it was worth it from the very beginning to the very end."
In the end, it’s about veterans helping veterans, and Cullifer looks forward to being on the other end of cries for help.
"The American Legion provided me with hope when I was at a point when there was none," Cullifer says. "By giving me hope, they’ve renewed my mission to continue my drive to help others."