Navid Garshasb is dying. The 49-year-old decorated Air Force veteran sits in a hospice bed, looking frail, unable to speak and subsisting on a diet given through a tube.
Doctors have given him only weeks to live. However, Garshasb is no stranger to difficult challenges. He has been fending off death since 2003 when he was diagnosed with brain cancer and given three months to live.
Garshasb emigrated from Iran with his mother, brother and sister in 1976 to Syracuse, N.Y. where he attended high school and college and met his wife, Joani, before enlisting in the Air Force in 1986. He served for 19 1/2 years before being medically retired in 2006—six months shy of the 20 years required to draw pension.
In his time with the Air Force, Garshasb was deployed to multiple locations in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, where he provided infrastructure support like driving water trucks before transitioning to the intelligence field so that he could make use of his fluency in five different languages to further his career and support the military.
Garshasb was first assigned to Navarre as an airman basic in 1987, just after he and Joani married. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Garshasb was sworn in as a citizen of Pensacola before being shipped off.
The Garshasbs moved around many times over the years before again landing at Hurlburt Field in 1999, where Garshasb served as an airborne linguist with the 25th Intelligence Squadron.
“We didn’t realize it was going to be our last assignment,” Joani said, with a crack of sadness in her voice. “But, it is a joy to come back to the beach and have our kids grow up and graduate high school here.”
Historic Helicopter Crash
Garshasb was deployed to Afghanistan one month after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At the beginning of November 2001, Garshasb was involved in the first helicopter crash of the war. Chronicled in two separate books—“None Braver: US Air Force Pararescuemen in the War on Terrorism” and “On a Steel Horse I Ride: A History of the MH-33 Pave Low Helicopters in War and Peace”—Garshasb was part of a medical evacuation mission in the mountains of Afghanistan when the high altitude caused a loss of pressure, forcing the helicopter down in enemy territory.
The crash fractured two vertebrae and a rib, damaged a rotator cuff and caused the onset of hypothermia. Things went from bad to worse when the crashed helicopter drew the attention of several natives in the area that began to descend on the site. Without knowing for certain whether the oncoming group was friend or enemy, Garshasb put down his weapon and approached them in an attempt to defuse a potentially volatile situation. He managed to utilize his language skills to encourage the men to turn back, preventing possible catastrophe, while ignoring his injuries.
For these actions Garshasb was awarded a Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal and also became the first non-rescue aviator to be awarded the William H. Pitsenbarger Award for Heroism.
Garshasb went through several surgeries to get him back into shape after all of his injuries, but nothing slowed him down for long.
“I remember this one time, he was pulling a Jet Ski out of the water after his surgeries and he dislocated one of his shoulders,” Garshasb’s son, Shahine said. “We asked him if he was alright, or if he needed any help, and he just pushed it right back in. He used to wake up, run 10 miles, do push-ups and then run back. He was strong.”
Garshasb was deployed back to Iraq after his recovery, but it wasn’t long before his next trial began. It was in Iraq when an alert flight surgeon noticed his gait was off, sent him out for a brain scan and discovered a mass in his head. He was medically evacuated in April 2003 to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. for further tests.
Garshasb had a grade-four brain tumor. He needed surgery immediately, but doctors didn’t know how successful a surgery would be.
“When they did the surgery, they said, ‘Please get your affairs in order. We don’t expect him to live more than three months,’” Joani said. “And that was April 23rd of 2003.”
He made it through with aggressive chemotherapy—the maximum allowable radiation for the brain and spinal area—and managed to walk with a cane. Though he had to medically retire from the Air Force in 2006, Garshasb seemed to be doing well.
“He was good again,” Shahine said.
He wasn’t good for long, though.
Exactly 10 years after the helicopter crash, in November 2011, Garshasb had a stroke. While undergoing treatment for the stroke, the family also learned of a blood disorder he had contracted as a direct result of the chemotherapy, which would require a bone marrow transplant to treat.
He bounced back quickly after that, went through rehabilitation and physical therapy and made every effort to live a normal life. He would regularly attend events hosted by his old squadron, volunteered for his church in Navarre and by all accounts seemed to be doing well.
Then a second stroke attacked him, affecting his speech and mobility significantly. He was also removed from the bone marrow transplant list because he was now considered too weak to survive the procedure.
Life Insurance Canceled
While in Sacred Heart Hospital for the stroke, Garshasb missed a payment on his Veteran’s Group Life Insurance. Joani didn’t know that he had been writing a check every month for the last seven years and assumed it was being automatically withdrawn from his VA benefits. Garshasb missed the December payment and the policy was canceled January 1, 2012, but Joani never received the letter telling them so.
After the second stroke Garshasb had to go into a facility for rehabilitation where he contracted a stomach bug that hospitalized him again and left him on life support. He was not expected to survive being taken off life support, but he managed to sustain himself despite the grim prognosis.
It was at this point that Joani was told that they had exhausted Medicare benefits for life. With nowhere to turn, Covenant Hospice stepped in and offered a bed for Navid at the end of July 2013, whether Medicare would cover it or not, and even allowed the family to bring in their dog for comfort.
Since then, with Garshasb only expected to live a few more weeks, Joani has been looking into death benefits and what would be available to her family. She said she hoped that paying back all missed payments on the VGLI, through Prudential, would allow it to be reinstated.
“I may not be able to save my husband, but I really want to save my family,” Joani said. “It’s the only benefit that we have. I have a mortgage, I have two kids in college and we have given our lives to the military.”
Friends of the family have set up a website to collect donations to help the family through their financial burden that has raised over $20,000 so far.
“We may have had a lot of things happen to us but we have been very lucky with friends and community support,” Joani said. “Truly, people have reached out and made us feel covered in prayer and blessed with friendship.”
Good news seemed to arrive on Thursday, when Daniel Fish, Military / VA Liaison for congressman Jeff Miller, called Joani to tell her that Prudential will provide benefits for up to one year beyond the lapse in payment if the premiums are back paid.
Fish thought that the policy had been canceled in 2013, which would have allowed coverage up to January 2014, giving Joani and her family hope that they would be covered if Navid were to die before then.
“If he lives past January 1, 2014, we will celebrate and forget the life insurance,” Joani wrote in an email.
Unfortunately, it later turned out that even if the premiums were brought up to date, Garshasb’s coverage would only have extended to January 2013, meaning that the deadline had already come and gone.
Prudential has now told Joani, again, that they will have to reapply for benefits—a process that has already taken several weeks and still requires a medical questionnaire and reinstatement application. These are things that will take time.
Time that Navid Garshasb does not have.
Editor’s Note: On Sept. 4, Navid “G” Garshasb passed away. Help a Hero hopes to raise funds for Navid “G” Garshasb’s family to deal with the financial concerns associated with his terminal illness. Donate here.