Vet fights for VA benefits while following passion for magic
Sgt. Jason Morel said he left one war only to come home to another, fighting for the veteran’s benefits he says he deserves.
Morel joined the Army after graduating from Coventry High School in 1994.
“I joined the Army in the beginning for the wrong reasons,” he said. “I needed to do something with my life.”
Morel served in the United States Army for 12 years, six months and 13 days, two years in the reserves and the rest as a full-time soldier, completing five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I didn’t want to get out. I was forced out,” said Morel, who claims it was inappropriate behavior from his ex-wife that led to his discharge while serving in 2005.
Col. Jack McMahon is a service representative at the Providence Veterans Affairs office, who met Morel a few years ago and has helped him in his struggle.
“It was my day to be covering the desk and he walked in with a Marine recruiter,” said McMahon. Morel was attempting to enlist in the Marines but there was an issue with his Army paperwork.
McMahon confirmed that Morel had received an other than honorable discharge, the lowest form of administrative discharge from the Army, following his reaction to requests from supervisors to control his ex-wife’s behavior, despite Morel being overseas in Iraq at the time.
“He had already re-enlisted twice, so he already had two honorable discharges,” said McMahon. “But his last one that got him kicked out of the service was other than honorable, which would have precluded him.”
Because of the status, Morel was unable to receive any of his benefits at the time and could not enlist in the Marine Corp either.
In addition to fighting to change his status, Morel was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to his experiences in combat in 2003. His last tour of duty was in 2004-2005. When asked how he remained in the Army with his diagnosis, Morel said “with luck.”
“It was a fight,” said Morel about the five-year struggle to have his status upgraded to full honorable discharge.
After realizing that Morel was being treated unfairly, McMahon, a former JAG officer, assisted Morel to receive a hearing in front of the discharge review board. As a result, Morel’s status was upgraded to general discharge under honorable conditions.
“The Army, to its credit, said this never should have happened,” said McMahon.
Despite his now honorable discharge status, Morel said he has been out of the Army for eight years and has yet to see a cent of his veteran’s benefits. For a time, he said he was homeless, penniless and living under I-95.
That was when he met Don Morash, a veteran of the Air Force who rents a West Warwick apartment to Morel.
“He looked like he needed a break,” said Morash, who met Morel in the spring of 2012 when Morel called about the apartment. “He’s a good guy; he’s a little eccentric and a little exaggerated, but a good guy.”
Morash added that those who do not understand Morel’s PTSD can dislike him right away, but in the year and a half he met the former soldier, Morash said he has truly gotten to know him. He said Morel is not dangerous and would never harm anyone.
“It’s an illness I don’t think you ever overcome,” said Morash, who admits he did not know much about PTSD before meeting Morel but has read up on the disorder and says it is clear to him Morel has it. “He needs to understand that people don’t understand.”
Morash doesn’t know if Morel’s dishonorable discharge has a connection to his ex-wife or stems from his PTSD diagnosis, but he did speak with McMahon about Morel’s status and condition before renting him an apartment. Morash also confirms that the other than honorable discharge has been upgraded.
Now, Morel said he is back on track. He currently lives in West Warwick, is working with a therapist and takes 17 different medications for anxiety and depression to manage his condition. He has also found a friend and mentor of sorts in Morash.
Morash explained that when Morel became his tenant, he had no furniture, no living necessities and because he had been denied veteran’s benefits, Morel could not pay the security deposit. Morash found a way to help.
“When he was dropped in my lap, there was probably a reason,” said Morash.
With the help of the Warwick Rotary Club, Morash was able to get Morel furniture, a television and other basic living needs.
“Everything he’s got up there, we were able to contribute to him,” said Morash.
Morash also assists Morel financially from time to time.
“If it wasn’t for the support system I have now, I wouldn’t be alive,” said Morel.
Morash also confirms that Morel lives on very little and is struggling without service-connected disability benefits.
McMahon explained that when his status was upgraded, Morel was able to receive his education benefits, but because he served less than 20 years (it would have been 20 this coming December), he is not entitled to an Army pension. However, because of his combat-related PTSD, Morel believes he should be entitled to service-connected disability benefits.
“You have to be able to show the disability you have is caused by your service. This is where he is running into a problem,” said McMahon.
Because he has testified on behalf of Morel, McMahon said he does not have access to information regarding Morel’s current claim.
Almost a month ago, Morel underwent his seventh compensation and pension exam with a psychologist, who confirmed his diagnosis of combat-related PTSD. Now he says he is waiting for the Washington, D.C. Board of Veteran Appeals to approve his claim and for the Army to send him a check.
“They have to back pay me three-quarters of a million dollars,” said Morel, saying the Army owes him benefits for the past 10 years, since the time he was diagnosed with PTSD.
For now, Morel is living on Social Security disability and the small amount of money he makes performing his act as a magician for the Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign War organizations.
“That’s all he gets and he tries to make a go for it,” said Morash, who said Morel’s case “fell through the cracks” but it should be coming to a conclusion soon.
Morel has wanted to be a professional magician since he was 5 years old and saw David Copperfield perform on television for the first time. So in 1998, Morel attended the Academy of Magical Arts in Hollywood, Calif. He said he is the only soldier in history to have the Army cover the cost of his tuition for magic school.
“It’s basically a boot camp for magicians,” said Morel of the six- to eight-month program. “They will actually give you a degree.”
Morel said the degree is the equivalent of an associate’s degree because students take classes in stage craft, building illusions and other creative areas behind being an illusionist.
Morel explained that the Academy looks at a student’s performance during their time at the school and will call to let them know that they received a license from the program. It essentially means a performer can utilize their name when performing and it gives the performer additional credibility. Morel received his license in 2003, five years after he completed his classes.
Morel’s passion even brought him to television. He was a contestant on “America’s Got Talent” in 2008 and 2009, making it to the sixth week and ninth week, respectively.
“They are ruthless,” said Morel about the judges on the show, adding that he would rehearse four hours a day, seven days a week for a performance only a few minutes long. “They have a psychologist on board.”
Now Morel is practicing his act with his two magicians’ assistants, Casey Richards and Melanie Maus. Both only began working with Morel a few weeks ago but are quickly learning the illusions and gearing up for their first performance. This is Richards’ first job in performing and in magic, but Maus’ father is a magician, so she grew up in the trade.
Morel said a third run at “America’s Got Talent” would require a serious discussion with his assistants.
Although Morel has yet to receive any pension benefits from the military, he is eligible for full educational benefits. Earlier this year, he was taking classes at Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) in their Drama department. He was enrolled in four classes for only five weeks when he received a letter saying he was no longer welcome on campus because of his behavior. “They thought I was a menace to society,” said Morel, who was working with a Veterans Affairs liaison, Mikayla Black. “She did not know how [PTSD] affected me in my civilian life.”
Now Morel feels he has been blacklisted from other colleges because of his situation with CCRI.
When reached for comment about Morel, CCRI said they were unable to comment on pending legal matters.
Despite his struggles, Morel does not regret the time he spent serving his country.
“The skills you get in the military carry you through your civilian life. I feel honored [to have served],” said Morel.
As Morel waits for the final word on his claim regarding his benefits and his discrimination case against CCRI for their action, he hopes to continue performing his magic for a little extra money. Morel charges $100 an hour for a card trick performance act, and for the full illusionist performance with Richards and Maus, the cost is $300 an hour. He can be contacted regarding performances at 332-4154.
“He’s very good at it,” said Morash about Morel’s magic tricks and illusions. He added that Morel recently performed at the National Night Out in Oakland Beach and has performed at a number of family events for Morash.
Morash has also introduced Morel to Councilwoman Camille Villa-Wilkenson, a Navy veteran, who in turn is helping connect Morel with the veterans’ services in Oakland Beach’s JONAH Center.