Disabled Firefighter Able To Go To Iraq

Gerald "Gunny" Vonderheide can fight a war, but he isn't allowed to fight a fire.

Vonderheide is an Army staff sergeant who in April returned from a year in Iraq, leading hazardous missions to check the condition of supply roads.

According to his disability retirement papers from the Belleville Fire Department's pension board, the 55-year-old veteran of both the Iraq and Vietnam wars is physically unfit to fight fires.

While Vonderheide, of Swansea, was carrying an M-16 and riding in a Humvee armored vehicle in Iraq, he was collecting a tax-free disability pension of $1,488 per month granted in 1985 when he injured his shoulder and retired after corrective surgery. He has collected more than $335,000 since the injury.

The former Marine, who went to Vietnam in 1967 at 18 and served a 13-month tour of duty delivering mail to Marines at the besieged Khe Sanh fire base, was asked how he could serve in the Iraq war but couldn't fight a house fire.

"The Army said I'm fit enough and the city of Belleville said I wasn't fit enough," Vonderheide said. "I have days when it hurts and days when it doesn't."

When Richland Creek flooded in May 1995, 10 years after his injury, a 45-year-old Vonderheide was interviewed as he helped family members carry belongings, including furniture, from a flooded house.

When he went to Iraq, Vonderheide said he carried his own pack and lugged his other gear aboard the plane. He is a reservist with the Army's Belleville-based 969th Transportation Detachment and works as a claims specialist for the Veteran's Administration in St. Louis.

Belleville Fire Chief David Martinson said that news of Vonderheide's deployment to Iraq last year raised some questions within the fire department.

"I was surprised when I learned he was going," said Martinson, adding that he thought Vonderheide's age and disability would keep him out of war.

Martinson said that 19 years ago as a firefighter, he went out on the same call, a false alarm at a restaurant, where Vonderheide was injured when crumbling basement stairs gave way.

"He fell right on top of me," said Martinson, who is a member of the Belleville Police and Fire Pension Board.

Martinson said that state law requires a disabled firefighter to get an annual physical examination only until age 50 to qualify for disability benefits. After that, the disability payment is permanent no matter what type of recovery may occur.

"We have no control after age 50," he said.

Belleville firefighter Rick Agne, a member and secretary of the city's pension board, said, "Whatever they allow him to do, we have no say-so."

Disabled firefighters are free to seek employment elsewhere as long as they don't return to firefighting. State law requires firefighters to be 100 percent physically able to meet fire department standards.

The number of police and firemen on disability causes a city's rate for Workmen's Compensation insurance to climb, former Illinois Department of Insurance spokesman Tom Jones has said.

Vonderheide said that after he left the Marines, where he rose to the rank of gunnery sergeant and earned the nickname "Gunny," he joined the Army Reserve, serving both as an inactive and active reservist.

In 2001, he signed up for the active reserve in order to get enough active duty years to retire in 2007 with a 20-year pension. By becoming an active duty reservist, he became eligible for duty in Iraq.

As for the required annual duties for the active reserve, including field exercises and other training, Vonderheide said, "They gave me waivers."