Mark Steppe returned from Iraq in 2006 after just a year of military service, but the short amount of time still managed to drastically change the course of his life.
Steppe never expected he would develop crippling injuries just a few years after returning from Iraq and be forced to fight against the government for medical care, while enduring a road full of hospital visits, denial, inconclusive answers, financial troubles and lawsuits.
While the 29-year-old should be enjoying activities he enjoyed before the war, such as camping and hunting, he is instead relies on a cane to walk and is in constant pain. Though Steppe and his wife, Amy McCambridge, have endured a long road, support from the , a car dealership and several people are helping to keep their family standing.
Steppe returned from the military with symptoms expected of a war veteran, experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chilling flashbacks. It was only after moving to Ridgewood from California to be closer to McCambridge’s parents that Steppe’s condition worsened.
He began experiencing an intense amount of back pain in 2007, and while McCambridge suspected a direct correlation between Steppe’s discomfort and time in combat — during which he says he was exposed to uranium and anthrax — the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs refused to cover his treatment.
“The VA told us he had arthritis and they couldn’t do anything to help us,” she said. “People think [veterans] get the care they need when they return home, but they don’t always.”
McCambridge remained unconvinced by the VA’s diagnosis and took Steppe to chiropractor Dr. John Cece of Midland Park, who confirmed her suspicion: something bigger than inflammable joints was making Steppe squirm. Dr. Cece suggested an MRI, drafting a letter to explaining the urgency and necessity of the procedure.
Once completed, the MRI found multiple lytic lesions in Steppe’s spine and hips, leading to bone biopsies.
"All I could think was, how had the VA missed this? At that point in 2009, my husband could no longer and still, cannot walk," McCambridge said. "Just from that point on, it has been a roller coaster downhill with his health. We still don’t have a confirmed diagnosis."
But with the help of organizations and community members in Ridgewood and surrounding towns, Steppe has been awarded a 100 percent service disability.
Ridgewood resident and Rotary Club member Frank Ramsay heard about Steppe and McCambridge’s struggles and chose to take action. He invited them to discuss their issues and identified a way he could help.
“After hearing their story I said to them, ‘I can’t do anything with regard to the VA or hospitals, but I can help you with other things and help you get your finances straightened out,’” Ramsay said. “That way I could take some of the burden off Amy’s shoulders, so she could focus on getting her husband well.”
The van McCambridge used to shuttle Steppe back and forth to the East Orange Campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System for treatment and check ups was failing, so Ramsay took a shot in the dark and approached in Paramus.
Owners John and Rick Sellman agreed to help—by having the van repaired onsite, footing the bill and loaning a car the couple could use while the van was in the shop.
“There were a lot of problems with their vehicle, but we took care of it and got the car back up and running,” said Vinny Marchesani, a Village Ford service manager who worked on the van. “After listening to [Steppe’s] plight, and what he’s still going through, it’s heartbreaking. This guy went over [to Iraq] and served our country, and is still having problems.”
KidsU, a child play center in Paramus, also lent their services to the Steppe-McCambridge family. Owner Kevin Kennedy met Steppe and McCambridge’s son Jack when he came in for classes with his grandmother, Joanne.
When Kennedy learned of the family’s struggle with the government and VA, he offered to let their son Jack play for free.
“They were in a bad situation, so we said, ‘why don’t you just come in and if your life situation changes, then you can pay us then,” Kennedy said. “They’ve been treated so poorly and we already feel Steppe has paid in full with his service. They’re a great family.”
Ramsay extended his offer to help, spreading the word throughout his branch of the rotary club, the Sunset Ridgewood Rotary Club of Central Bergen, and the community, enlisting the help of doctors, dentists, and lawyers and even utilized his skills as a financial advisor to help the McCambridge-Steppe family organize their finances.
Ramsay had two brothers who served in the military, but that wasn’t the only reason Steppe’s story touched him.
“It’s grossly unfair to turn our back on our own military, especially those who have served well and faithfully,” Ramsay explained. “Once people heard the story, they jumped at the chance to help. What I’m finding is, if you ask, there will be people who will come through. Ask and you shall receive.”
Civic organizations like the Sunset Ridgewood Rotary Club of Central Bergen collected and donated $1,000 to the McCambridge-Steppe family. Bob Paoli at the American Legion Post 53, the Wounder Warrior Project, Richard Claydon at the also offered support. And ,, featured McCambridge and Steppe in Honor Vet's public service announcement to bring attention to how PTSD affects veterans and their families.
The network of those willing to lend a helping hand extended from families like the Cronins and Hennessey's, to the McKennas and Bombace's, even drawing friendly smiles from a 5th grade class at . Father Ron Rozniak of provided spiritual guidance for Steppe during his many hospital stays.
, DMD, who in January 2011 performed a much-needed procedure on Steppe for no cost, was similarly a major help, as was Dr. Arnold Criscitiello, of the , the family said. The family has seen attorneys Sharon Umhoefer and David Whitlock aid in their legal fights.
"Eighteen veterans a day commit suicide. I know my husband wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for these people, who enabled us to have time and more strength to fight the battles we were fighting and not have to worry about our car, or worry about finding lawyers or [Steppe’s] dental care,” McCambridge said. “They lifted that off of all of our shoulders, enabling us to fight the bigger fight and get the VA to acknowledge my husband was healthy before, and acknowledge a correlation between the war and him being sick now. We were able to do this because of these people.”