Sherwood, Arkansas — Army life was good for Michael Caldwell—and it was bad.
The Peoria, Ill., native joined the Army Reserve in 1970 and spent 14 years honing his skills as a certified welder. He progressed through the ranks and later met his wife, Tina, who also was serving in the Army Reserve.
If Reserve life was good for them, Mr. Caldwell thought that active duty Reserves would be even better. For a time, it was. The regular Army moved them around quite a bit, and they enjoyed assignments to Washington State, New York, the Pentagon and Texas. They eventually wound up in Arkansas. He received a warrant officer commission and went from the welding shop to maintenance logistics at the two-star command level.
But the wear and tear of military life took its toll on Mr. Caldwell and, on Nov. 2, 2004, the Army said he could no longer meet mission requirements. Among his many ailments: cervical degenerative disc disease, a herniated disc, bilateral hand and arm numbness and tingling, uncontrollable tremors in his upper arms, lower back pain, hearing loss, bowel and bladder dysfunction and sleep apnea. He retired with full military disability benefits.
Now 56, Caldwell is a matter-of-fact sort of guy. He doesn’t get too worked up about his condition and makes the best of it he can.
“I’m about 70 percent mobile,” he said of his current state. “Off and on I have to use a cane.” He also sleeps with a CPAP machine, an oxygen mask strapped to his head so that he doesn’t quit breathing at night. And he deals with the numbness and tingling, which he said is worse in his legs than his arms. “My arms ache, but not too badly. My left leg is primarily numb. And I’ve got hearing aids in both ears.”
The disability package the Army gave him provided what he thought was the necessary paperwork and evidence to draw additional disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). He logged onto the SSA website to see how to apply. “Jeez, what a load,” he muttered as he pored over the arcane rules and regulations and form after form after form the site dictated would be necessary to obtain Arkansas Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.
While he scanned the Internet with growing wariness, a window popped up asking if he was interested in taking a pre-qualification survey. He figured, “What the heck,” and completed the survey. The company offering the survey, Allsup, contacted him two weeks later.
“I realized with what all Social Security required, it would have been extremely difficult to file a claim on my own,” Mr. Caldwell said of his decision to accept Allsup’s help. He needed strong, capable helping hands.
When Jim Allsup, president and CEO, formed his company in 1984, he set out to instill values that would drive his business and his employees. Headquartered in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis, the company has identified four core values that drive its day-to-day approach to business: True Helping, Expert, Driven and Fairness. “All of our employees demonstrate these values every day,” said Mr. Allsup.
Allsup employs more than 600 professionals who have helped more than 130,000 people obtain over $12 billion in SSDI and Medicare benefits. Despite Mr. Caldwell’s laundry list of serious ailments, helping him receive his much-needed benefits wouldn’t be easy. It seldom is.
Allsup took Mr. Caldwell’s case April 27, 2005, and filed his initial claim on June 6. Social Security promptly turned him down. Grim news, Mr. Caldwell thought, until an Allsup representative said, “Don’t worry.”
“Allsup called and told me, ‘Plan A didn’t work, so now we’ll go to Plan B,'” Mr. Caldwell said. But Plan B didn’t work either. Social Security again denied Mr. Caldwell at the reconsideration level, so he was headed for a hearing. Allsup senior representative Jeff Bares took on the case. The first thing he advised his client was to be patient—for good reason. The Social Security disability backlog is tremendous nationwide. For claimants in Arkansas, the average time waiting for processing a claim exceeds 400 days.
“There were many things wrong with Mr. Caldwell,” Mr. Bares recalled. “He’d had neck surgery in 1990 and two more surgeries-for a cervical spine injury and lumbar decompression-in 2007. He has suffered from bipolar disorder since March 2005. All the medications he was prescribed were giving a hard time psychologically.”
The next level of consideration for Mr. Caldwell would require a hearing before an administrative law judge. Mr. Bares and his client headed to the hearing Sept. 20, 2007.
“The judge saw right away how bad off I was,” Mr. Caldwell said. “I was pretty sure of the outcome when we left the hearing, but it was still a big relief when I finally got letters from Social Security and Allsup.”
The favorable decision finally came in February 2008. All Mr. Caldwell could say was, “Whew!”
He spends much of his time these days leaving the care of the family home to his son, Peter, while he and Tina travel the country to various Army National Guard installations where she teaches a maintenance program. Traveling in their own vehicle, they average five weeks on the road, with one or two back home in between assignments.
“She’d like to retire now, as well, and with my pension and disability insurance, we could do it,” Mr. Caldwell said. “We’re thinking about getting a motor home and just traveling around the country to visit old Army buddies and family members. I think that’s pretty cool, but it depends on how the gas prices go.” At least it’s a possibility, now that he’s successfully navigated the SSDI maze.
“I might have been able to get my [SSDI] benefits without Allsup’s help,” he reflected recently. “But I could not afford it. I would have thrown the towel in long ago without Allsup’s help. You need somebody keeping your head above water during that long waiting period.”
Mr. Caldwell has recommended Allsup to others, relating his own story and battle-the hardest-earned victory of his long Army career. He may not have earned a medal for the victory, but he thinks Allsup deserves one.
“Allsup is tremendous,” Mr. Caldwell said. “When it was all said and done, I was tickled pink.”