At 99 years of age, Forsyth County resident Marian Rytkonen has a serious problem.
In the next weeks or months, Rytkonen, a veteran of World War II, could be forced out of her comfortable life at a Forsyth County nursing home while the wheels of federal government move at a snail’s pace — the worst-case scenario in a nightmare that has consumed her family over the last year.
According to family members, Rytkonen moved to Forsyth County from Michigan in October 2018 after her son, local firefighter Bob Kaley, discovered that her life savings had been stolen by a caretaker.
Over the last year, Kaley says that he has tried everything to get his mother’s life back on a stable track, working through the system set up by the Department of Veterans Services to get her the benefits she needs to live, but in the process they have become discouraged, disheartened and virtually penniless.
"We were told that she would be fast-tracked because of her age and because of the situation," Kaley said. "Well, we've been battling this since October and all we ever get is, 'Oh, it's being processed. We need this paperwork. This wasn't done right.' It's just been hit and miss."
Rytkonen was a Corporal with the United States Army who worked as a recruiter during World War II, going out on the road with a team to help enlist men to fight. The elderly vet says that she loved her time in the Army and only discharged in 1945 to help nurse her husband back to health when his plane was shot down over France.
"I loved it, I really did. In fact, I told the kids today that if I hadn't gotten married, I probably would have stayed in. I really liked it," she said.
She said that she needs to be living close to her family in a place that she trusts and right now, that place is the nursing home she’s currently at, The Oaks at Post Road in Forsyth County.And until now, she has never asked for any of the benefits from the Department of Veteran Services (DVS) that her and her husband’s army service qualified her for.
"She’s at the age that she needs to have people around her that can take care of her should she need something," Kaley said. "I can’t do that. I love my mom to death, but I can't be with her 24/7."
Kaley said they understand that thousands of people need help from the DVS, but they are at a point where there's no time left for them to wait.
"I've got my back against the wall and I'm running out of time," he said. "It's come down to it, do I move her or do I pick up cans on the side of [Ga.] 400 or do I reach out to somebody."
Attempts to reach a spokesperson with the Department of Veterans Services for comment on the progress of Rytkonen’s application were unsuccessful as of press time Friday.
Kaley said that neither he or his mom asks for help easily, but in the end they had to reach out to someone to ask for help.
Less than two weeks ago, Kaley was connected through Facebook to the Shadow Warrior Foundation, a local non-profit organization that assists veterans who are struggling with homelessness, drug addiction and PTSD, and almost immediately they began to feel more hopeful.
"It's just been a constant flow of, 'We've got this, we're going to help you,’” Kaley said. “These people have gotten on board to help me and I'm so thankful that I found someone that's going to take this by the reins and help me out."
According to Ryan Hepworth, president and founder of the Shadow Warrior Foundation, their organization has been able to push back the date of her potential eviction. But the danger hasn’t passed and they will need more help to keep Rytkonen where she’s at while they wait for her benefits to come in.
"We're trying to push the VA to expedite it, because it's garbage," Hepworth said in a phone interview with the Forsyth County News. "Why make someone like that wait? This woman, she served from 1943 to 1945, her husband was shot down in France ... it's just not right for her to be done this way."
Like Kaley, Hepworth said that they understand the pressure put on the DVS, but for Rytkonen time is running out.
"She does not deserve to sit around and wait like this,” he said. "This isn't VA bashing, there's a lot of VAs that do it alright, but one thing that they don't do very well is inform people on how to capture their benefits appropriately and things taken care of the way that they should."
The experience has opened Kaley’s eyes. He’s been inspired to keep working with Shadow Warrior Foundation, even after they sort out his mom’s current situation.
"I'm hoping that I can more than give back to this organization," he said. "I think after this situation, I'm ready to take on someone else."
A spokesperson with the Shadow Warrior Foundation says that anyone wishing to help Rytkonen or to support their organization can learn more about donating at www.shadowwarriorfoundation.org