Saturday, November 12, 2011

Homeless Military Widow: “My heart is sad for my teenager”

Cindy Kureth just wants a job and a place to call home. She had both not long ago, but she got laid off, unemployment ran out, and the mortgage company took her home.
Now all the Richmond, Virginia mother has is a motel room for herself and her 16-year old son. That, and memories of her husband, former Army Major Elwood Kureth, Jr., who died eleven years ago, when his son was 5. He and Cindy had been married for nineteen years.
“Evan worshiped the ground his father walked (on),” Cindy told me in an email. “They were two peas in a pod.”
Yesterday was Veterans Day – a day for remembering people like Elwood, and also Cindy, who herself served in the military, as a First Lieutenant and flight nurse in the Air Force Reserves. But it was also the day Cindy and her son may have had to downsize again. They’ve lived in a series of motels over the last ten months, but last night they were due to begin sleeping in their van. Cindy owes the motel $90, and she won’t be receiving a military benefit check until next week.
Elwood served three tours of duty, including Desert Storm. Although he died in 2000 as a civilian – of a massive heart attack – there was nonetheless a military connection: according to Cindy, the coroner found that the attack resulted from heart disease so severe that it must have started while he was still in the service. Service members get a medical exam upon discharge, but Army doctors failed to detect the heart disease.
The reason for that, Cindy explained, was at least partially because they never asked about Elwood’s family medical history.
Elwood didn’t smoke or drink, and he stayed physically fit. He worked as a computer programmer – self-taught, Cindy noted proudly – in languages such as C++.
One day – in another sad irony, it was Memorial Day – he left the couple’s Michigan home to go dirt biking. He never came back. Cindy was at the house when she got a call and learned that ER doctors were working frantically to save her husband’s life. She told Evan only that doctors were trying to fix his daddy’s heart. He was too young to understand, and took the news matter-of-factly.
Later that afternoon, Cindy took Evan to the backyard, away from family members who had gathered and were trying to conceal their grief from the child. She pointed to the sky, and reminded him of the family pets that had died in the past, starting with the cat.
“Do you remember when God took Kimba?,” she asked. He did. “And Goldie?” Yes, he remembered the goldfish too. She told Evan that God also takes children sometimes, and even “big people.”
And then he began to understand: “Did God take my Daddy?,” he asked. Yes, she told him. A dam burst and the five-year old cried out, “Did my Daddy die?” Yes, she said. But then came the hardest question: “Are you going to get me a new Daddy?”
After three years of appeals, a Veterans Administration board held that Elwood’s death was service related. It awarded Cindy a $1,400 per month military pension. That just covers the $45 per day she’s been paying for the motel room she awkwardly shares with her now-teenage son.
Everything else – food for two, gas, insurance, doctors and dentists – has to come out of a $1,300 per month Social Security death benefit that Evan receives. That money will end in a year, when he turns 18.
Until earlier this week, even Cindy’s memories of her husband were at risk: almost everything she and Evan own is in storage, and the storage company threatened to auction the contents of her unit for non-payment. That would have been the end of her photos and mementos, Evan’s toys, the household furniture, pots and pans – and even Elwood’s uniforms.
He looked so handsome in those, Cindy told me, “but I couldn’t bear to bury them.”
To save their possessions, Cindy rented a truck and she spent six days moving them to a less-expensive unit at a different facility. The truck cost her $170. She did much of the moving herself – hard, physical work – and some of it in the rain.
She’s going to sell some of her miscellaneous possessions so they’ll have money to eat. She could sell the furniture too, but then they’d have nothing to sleep on and nowhere to sit when – if – she finally finds a new place to live. And it might mean acknowledging defeat, a prospect that agitates her.
Not Evan though. “I don’t freak out,” he told me in a disconcertingly flat tone. “It is what it is.”
Cindy and Evan had a home until nine months ago, but PHH Mortgage Services took it when she fell behind in her payments. Cindy wasn’t underwater: she owed about $142,000 on the mortgage, but PHH sold the house for $183,000.
A PHH spokesman declined to discuss foreclosure issues, calling it a “touchy subject” that he couldn’t address without consulting other company executives who were not available due to the holiday. However, PHH’s website isn’t shy about proclaiming the company’s commitment to bringing good to the world.
“The PHH Mortgage mission and values include treating everyone like family, always doing what is right, and leading by example,” PHH president Luke Hayden says on a page devoted to the company’s philanthropic efforts. “Our hope,” he adds, “is that society, in part, will be better because of PHH Mortgage leadership and contributions within the community.”
Ironically, among those contributions are care packages for the military, which “deliver the comforts of home to local troops deployed to Iraq or other locations around the world.”
Cindy said that her problems with the company started in 2009, when she began falling behind in her payments after losing her job. With a BA in nursing, she had been working at a local hospital in a cardiac support job, but lost it in 2008.
She asked PHH to modify her loan under the federal Home Affordable Modification Program. The company told her Fannie Mae rules made that impossible – but when Cindy contacted Fannie Mae, they told her the decision was PHH’s alone.
In Richmond, Cindy learned, PHH delivers foreclosure notices, not care packages.
She says that the company, which describes itself as “one of the top five originators of retail residential mortgages in the United States,” mishandled the foreclosure in various ways. Among other things, she charges, PHH strung her along by saying she was a good candidate for the HAMP program, then lowered the boom when she ran out of options.
“My mortgage company did me dirty,” Cindy told me.
The foreclosure proceeded as planned on January 6, 2011, with even the judge’s secretary in tears. Now, thanks in part to PHH, Cindy and Evan have no more “comforts of home.”
“It wasn’t a good feeling,” said Evan. “You lose a house – that’s a lot.” But he added, “I haven’t cried in forever. There’s no point.”
According to Cindy, the buyer that day was a local millionaire who trolls foreclosures for a living. He took Cindy to court and had her and Evan evicted in ten days. When he showed up at the house, Cindy begged for a month’s grace period so she could move out in an orderly fashion.
The buyer told Cindy he was a “good Christian,” but he was apparently not good enough to read Exodus 22:22 (“Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child”). So Cindy and Evan were out, and six months later the good Christian flipped the house for a good profit, selling it for $315,000, or $132,000 more than he paid for it. He no doubt put money into the place before unloading it, but I was unable to reach him for comment (which is why I’m not naming him or identifying the property).
Meanwhile, Cindy went to another financial institution, Wells Fargo, and asked for an $8,000 loan to consolidate her bills (or some of them at least). A loan officer refused, citing her shattered credit and lack of income. She pointed out that the bank and its employees had donated up to $1.5 million for disaster relief in Japan following that country’s earthquake and asked if they would help her too.
But the bank wouldn’t bite: the loan officer responded by asking, “Ma’am, don’t you know there’s a tragedy over there?” He seemed unaware of the part he was playing in a tragedy closer to home.
So Cindy went back to her motel room, where she’s spent her days using a borrowed laptop to look for jobs. She hasn’t found any, and she’s about due to return the laptop as well. Nor, she tells me, has she gotten help from the VA, social service agencies, legislators, community organizations or local churches.
The ancient Greeks said “God helps those who help themselves,” but it hasn’t worked out that way for Cindy. She enrolled in a trade school last year and told me that “receiving the President's Award for acquiring a 4.0 GPA was the epitome of my seven months of enrollment” – but the clock ran out on her schooling when her federal grant ended.
“I miss school so much,” Cindy said.
Her goal had been to “acquire certification in billing and coding in health information management so I could be more marketable and my son could have a better future in his college studies.”
“Now, sad to say, (education) is a pipe dream,” Cindy said. All she wants is to grab hold of the ladder of opportunity that once represented the American dream, but “it seems,” she told me, “like we are sinking in this country instead of having opportunities to better ourselves.”
She’d be happy just to teach herself – but at $140, even the textbook is out of reach.
So far, at least, Evan is receiving an education. After her husband died, Cindy scoured the country for good public schools in affordable neighborhoods. Evan had been labeled gifted, and – like most parents – Cindy wanted him to reach his full potential. They moved from Michigan in 2001 to suburban Richmond, where she bought the house that they lived in until PHH took it earlier this year.
Currently a junior, Evan is enrolled in an engineering studies program at his local high school. He made the honor roll and is on the Ultimate Frisbee team and in VEX Robotics club. “He’s thrived,” said Cindy, noting that Evan may qualify for a NASA internship next summer.
“I kind of want to be a chef,” Evan told me, a bit surprisingly, then added that engineering and biomedical science were his more practical choices.
“I couldn't be more proud of my son,” said Cindy, then added, “My heart is sad for my teenager. He doesn't deserve to be homeless; having friends and being able to invite them to a secure home is something he would like to do, but it isn't feasible at this time.”
Life was better once. When Elwood was still in the service, he and Cindy lived for a time in Germany. Back stateside, they traveled to Hawaii, Florida, California. Since Elwood’s death, Cindy’s son has been her focus; when she had the means, she sent him to a variety of camps (basketball, rock climbing, kayaking, Boy Scouts), got him acting classes and had him take lessons in guitar and saxophone. He became a Black Belt in karate when he was nine years old.
Now the holidays approach and, with them, Evan’s birthday (December 20) and Cindy’s as well (December 25). Gifts seem unlikely, and the larger questions are almost unbearable: where will they live? how will they eat? will Evan be able to go to college?
But more, why is this happening – not just to Cindy and Evan, but to millions of families, singles, couples, gay, straight, young, old, people of all races and religions, atheists and agnostics? It’s a question many people are asking. But perhaps not Evan.
“Sometimes you have to accept things as they are,” he told me, once again in a disturbing monotone.
Cindy tends to be more impassioned – but for all that she had shared with me, there was something she left out as well.
Elwood, as I discovered via Google, had co-authored a book a decade before he died: Reflections of a Warrior: Six Years as a Green Beret in Vietnam, by Franklin D. Miller with Elwood J. C. Kureth, Jr. The book was the autobiography of a Congressional Medal of Honor winner whom Elwood met while stationed in Seoul. Miller was a raconteur; Elwood became enchanted, and offered to help write the older soldier’s story.
The book was published in 1991 – on the day Elwood left for Desert Storm – then reprinted in 2003 with some added material: an Afterword that presented a timeline of both authors’ lives. The timeline concluded with Miller’s death on June 30, 2000 – and Elwood’s a month earlier, “of a heart attack while dirt bike racing.” Then came these words:
Elwood, you are sadly missed by your wife, Cindy, and son, Evan, and by many friends and family members. You accomplished many feats in your short life. The memories we acquired will forever be cherished. The love you gave to us will always remain in our hearts.
The Afterword was signed “Cindy Kureth.”
You can contact Cindy at and on Facebook. Although she isn’t asking for charity, she needs it, and so (with her permission) I’m including her bank information for those inclined to contribute: Cindy Kureth, c/o KeyBank, 100 W. Michigan Ave., Saline, MI 48176. (She kept the account even after moving from Michigan to Virginia in 2001.)