Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.
 

[TIMELINE] Frank Fong - WWII Decorated Pilot's 54 Year Quest for Benefits

Expand Messages
  • madchinaman
    Battling the bureaucracy: One decorated pilot s 54-year quest for benefits By ALISON YOUNG http://66.102.7.104/search?
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 17, 2005
      Battling the bureaucracy: One decorated pilot's 54-year quest for
      benefits
      By ALISON YOUNG
      http://66.102.7.104/search?
      q=cache:Pyoe6MjQxMIJ:www.ohio.com/mld/ohio/news/special_packages/vete
      rans/10915821.htm+Frank+Fong&hl=en
      http://www.realcities.com/multimedia/nationalchannel/news/KRT_Package
      s/archive/vets/frank_fong2/



      WESTON, Fla. - During World War II, commanders gave fighter pilot
      Frank Fong some of the Army Air Corp's highest honors for heroism
      and skill: two Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight Air Medals.

      But it took 48 years for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to
      concede that a plane crash scarred his left eye and eventually took
      his sight.

      It took two more years for the VA to agree that Fong is seriously
      disabled by nightmares and flashbacks of violent air combat
      missions. And nearly three years to fully compensate him for his
      blind eye and for a back injury from the plane crash, VA records
      show.

      Fong's battle with the VA isn't over. He's still seeking back pay
      for the years 1950-1997, when the VA refused to acknowledge his
      blindness.

      The highly decorated veteran's 54-year ordeal illustrates how
      technicalities in the VA's disability compensation system
      shortchange those who lack well-trained advocates and the
      persistence to keep fighting for years.

      VA officials said in a statement that they consider Fong's case "a
      perfect example of how VA laws help a veteran. He has reopened his
      claim for new disabilities on multiple occasions over the past 50
      years with favorable outcomes on many."

      But for today's soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other
      battlegrounds, Fong's story is a cautionary tale about the perils of
      not complaining about injuries in order to remain on duty when your
      country needs you.

      "I always thought our government would take care of us," said Fong,
      a retired commercial artist who lives in the Fort Lauderdale suburb
      of Weston.

      Listen to Frank Fong The decorated fighter pilot talks about his
      experiences in war and with the VA.

      The VA's files are littered with the dropped claims of veterans who
      gave up. But Fong has battled injustice throughout his life, and at
      85 he isn't about to stop.

      "It's the principle of the thing," said Fong, who became a pilot
      even though the Army initially rejected him for flight school
      because he's of Chinese ancestry. "It's the whole damn idea that
      they'd jerk me around like this."

      By all accounts, Fong was an exemplary pilot, cited over and over
      for his "courage, coolness and skill," military records show.

      But during a mission over Germany in the spring of 1944, Fong had
      the accident that would later cause him to go blind in his left eye.

      Flying low at 300 mph, Fong was strafing locomotives when his P-47
      Thunderbolt skimmed over a small hill, crashed through the top of
      some trees and then hit the ground.

      His face slammed into the gun sight as the plane bounced back into
      the air. "It just knocked me silly. For a good second I was out," he
      said.

      With torn propeller blades and battered wings on his plane, Fong
      made an emergency landing.

      Shards from his sunglasses had lodged in his left eye, and his back
      had suffered a tremendous jolt. After about 10 days in the hospital,
      Fong said he told his doctors he was fine to return to duty - even
      though his vision wasn't quite right.

      "You've got to understand, I did something really stupid," Fong
      said. "I should not have flown for at least a couple of weeks while
      the damage healed."

      The glass shards had gouged his retina, altering his depth
      perception and making landings particularly dangerous.

      Still, Fong flew two missions on D-Day with the 359th Fighter Group,
      this time in a P-51 Mustang. On his second mission, flak tore a hole
      the size of a basketball in the plane's canopy, Fong said, slamming
      pieces into his head and aggravating his eye condition.

      From June 5-13, his flight record shows that he flew 10 missions
      before a flight surgeon ordered him transferred to a regional
      hospital for treatment and evaluation.

      "I had slight peripheral vision," he said. "Of course, when they
      asked me how it was, of course I said, `I see fine.' "

      But by April 12, 1945, Fong's flight rating was downgraded and a
      flight surgeon noted: "Severe spinal injury. Healing. Curvature is
      evident. Eye (retina) damage."

      Fong was reassigned to an air-sea rescue unit.

      Then in November 1945, he was sent to Nautilus Hospital in Miami
      Beach with recurring problems with his left eye and spinal injuries,
      records show.

      Yet when he left active duty in May 1946, Fong's official Army
      discharge exam listed his eyesight as 20/20 in both eyes. It makes
      no mention of any crash injuries.

      The VA used that against him for decades.

      Fong first asked the VA to compensate him for his blindness in July
      1950. The VA denied his claim, saying that being near-sighted "is
      not a disability within the meaning of applicable laws." But the VA
      awarded him $15 a month for an ear infection.

      The letter puzzled Fong because it didn't mention his left eye or
      the crash.

      The VA doctor's report, obtained by Knight Ridder through a Privacy
      Act review of Fong's file at the VA's St. Petersburg, Fla., regional
      office, notes that his vision was far from perfect: 20/70 in the
      left eye and 20/60 in the right. (Elsewhere in the report, the
      doctor ascribes the worse vision to the right eye.) The exam appears
      to be the work of a general practitioner, and there's no indication
      that he examined Fong's retina.

      Dr. Harry Hamburger, a Miami ophthalmologist and eye trauma expert,
      said the scar on Fong's retina would have been evident in 1950, and
      there's no question that it was the result of the 1944 crash.

      "He's got a permanent scar there. He's worse than legally blind,"
      said Hamburger, a former consulting surgeon at Florida's Homestead
      Air Force Base who's examined Fong and his military records. "He
      just sees shapes, just gross shapes."

      In 1951, the Air Force recalled Fong to serve during the Korean War
      in the Air Intelligence Group in Washington, D.C.

      His official military medical exam in March 1951 reports near
      perfect vision in both eyes.

      In contrast, various reports written by a Bolling Air Force Base
      flight surgeon show Fong was cleared only for temporary flight
      duty: "Officer has history of severe eye and spinal injuries. Some
      hearing loss. Vision loss due to air crash mainly to left eye.
      Severe spinal injury from impact."

      But the VA never pulled Fong's flight records, which often don't
      find their way into the official service medical files that are used
      to determine a veteran's eligibility for compensation. Fong had no
      way of knowing this.

      A week after he was discharged from active duty in April 1953, Fong
      reopened his VA disability claim. Again, it was denied.

      Fong said he didn't think there was anything else he could do. And
      he didn't seek help from any of the big national veterans groups.

      "I didn't go to them because I thought the VA was helping me," he
      said. "I didn't get wise until years later."

      Fong built a life in the Miami area. He had a successful career as a
      commercial artist and remained passionate about flight, even serving
      on a NASA committee that helped select teacher-in-space candidates.

      He dabbled in acting, getting bit parts on "Miami Vice" and the
      movie "Miami Rhapsody," starring Sarah Jessica Parker.

      But the blindness in his left eye was making work as an artist
      impossible. He also wasn't coping well with life, although he didn't
      know why.

      In 1997, this time with the expert help of a service officer from
      the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, Fong filed another
      claim with the VA for his blindness, as well as a new claim for his
      back injury.

      He also got a piece of advice from another veteran that he's
      followed ever since.

      "He told me, `Frank, when they turn you down, appeal it. Appeal the
      crap out of them,' is what he said, `and you'll get something.' And
      I noticed each time I appealed I got something."

      At a reunion of his World War II fighter group, Fong learned how to
      get copies of his flight logs to prove his claims. With this new
      evidence, the VA granted his claims for blindness and back injury in
      October 1998, making payments retroactive to the filing of his 1997
      claim.

      The service officer also recognized that Fong had the classic
      symptoms of post- traumatic stress disorder. He sent Fong to the
      Miami Vet Center, where counselors diagnosed him with the disorder,
      records show, and he began to get treatment.

      But the VA denied his post-traumatic stress disorder claim, based on
      a VA doctor's opinion that Fong didn't have the disorder. So the
      service officer helped Fong get two additional expert opinions to
      refute the denial. Eventually another VA psychiatrist said what the
      others had said all along: Fong suffers from severe post-traumatic
      stress disorder. In June 2000, the VA finally granted his claim.

      In 2002, the VA denied Fong's request that the effective date on his
      blindness claim be set back to 1950 - the date he first applied.
      He's been appealing that ever since.

      Fong's lack of success isn't surprising.

      The VA's arcane rules give veterans a year to appeal a denied claim,
      otherwise the clock stops on any back pay. So it doesn't matter that
      in 1950 a VA doctor failed to diagnose the scar on Fong's retina.
      All that matters is that Fong didn't file an appeal within a year,
      the VA has ruled.

      But based on questions raised by Knight Ridder about the adequacy of
      the VA doctor's exam and the agency's failure to pull Fong's flight
      surgeon records, VA officials last month said the St. Petersburg
      Regional Office will take another look at whether Fong's entitled to
      back pay for his blindness. Knight Ridder, the VA said, "brings up
      some relevant points regarding the left eye injury."

      Last month, based on questions raised by Knight Ridder, VA officials
      said they'd take another look at whether Fong is entitled to back
      pay for his blindness.

      This time the VA came to a different conclusion - but the agency
      still won't be giving Fong any back pay.

      On Feb. 16, the VA agreed that Fong's eye injury existed back in
      1950, but it says there's no proof that it was disabling enough then
      to warrant any compensation.

      The VA appears to have focused solely on those medical records that
      say Fong had 20/20 or 20/30 vision in the 1950s. Agency officials
      gave little explanation about how they weighed contradictory
      evidence in Fong's file that show his vision loss and downgraded
      flight ratings in the 1940s and 1950s.

      Hamburger, the eye expert, said the damage to Fong's left eye was
      clear in 1950. "He was blind from the very beginning and should be
      compensated for it," he said. "The man needed to fly and a doctor
      put down that he could see temporarily so he could go back up in his
      plane and fight again. People will do that in a time of great
      emergency."

      Fong says he'll file another appeal. Despite his age - Fong turns 86
      in April - VA officials said he isn't eligible for expedited
      processing.

      "They don't want to pay out the money," Fong said. "It's as simple
      as that."


      ===========


      Persistence pays off for WWII vet
      ALISON YOUNG
      http://www.bradenton.com/mld/bradenton/news/11057080.htm


      WESTON - During World War II, commanders gave fighter pilot Frank
      Fong some of the Army Air Corp's highest honors for heroism and
      skill: two Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight Air Medals.

      But it took 48 years for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to
      concede that a plane crash scarred his left eye and eventually took
      his sight.

      It took two more years for the VA to agree that Fong is seriously
      disabled by nightmares and flashbacks of violent air combat
      missions. And nearly three more years to fully compensate him for
      his blind eye and for a back injury from the plane crash, VA records
      show.

      Fong's battle with the VA isn't over. He's still seeking back pay
      for the years 1950-1997, when the VA refused to acknowledge his
      blindness.

      The highly decorated veteran's 54-year ordeal illustrates how
      technicalities in the VA's disability compensation system
      shortchange those who lack well-trained advocates and the
      persistence to keep fighting for years.

      VA officials said in a statement that they consider Fong's case "a
      perfect example of how VA laws help a veteran. He has reopened his
      claim for new disabilities on multiple occasions over the past 50
      years with favorable outcomes on many."

      But for today's soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other
      battlegrounds, Fong's story is a cautionary tale about the perils of
      not complaining about injuries in order to remain on duty when your
      country needs you.

      "I always thought our government would take care of us," said Fong,
      a retired commercial artist who lives in the Fort Lauderdale suburb
      of Weston.

      The VA's files are littered with the dropped claims of veterans who
      gave up. But Fong has battled injustice throughout his life, and at
      85 he isn't about to stop.

      "It's the principle of the thing," said Fong, who became a pilot
      even though the Army initially rejected him for flight school
      because he's of Chinese ancestry.

      By all accounts, Fong was an exemplary pilot, cited over and over
      for his "courage, coolness and skill," military records show.

      But during a mission over Germany in the spring of 1944, Fong had
      the accident that would later cause him to go blind in his left eye.

      Flying low at 300 mph, Fong was strafing locomotives when his P-47
      Thunderbolt skimmed over a small hill, crashed through the top of
      some trees and then hit the ground. Shards from his sunglasses
      lodged in his left eye, and his back suffered a tremendous jolt.
      After about 10 days in the hospital, Fong said he told his doctors
      he was fine to return to duty - even though his vision wasn't quite
      right.

      "You've got to understand, I did something really stupid," Fong
      said. "I should not have flown for at least a couple of weeks while
      the damage healed."

      The glass shards gouged his retina, altering his depth perception
      and making landings particularly dangerous.

      Yet when he left active duty in May 1946, Fong's official Army
      discharge exam listed his eyesight as 20/20 in both eyes. It makes
      no mention of any crash injuries. The VA used that against him for
      decades.

      Fong first asked the VA to compensate him for his blindness in July
      1950. The VA denied his claim, saying that being near-sighted "is
      not a disability within the meaning of applicable laws." But the VA
      awarded him $15 a month for an ear infection.

      The VA doctor's report, obtained by Knight Ridder through a Privacy
      Act review of Fong's file at the VA's St. Petersburg, Fla., regional
      office, notes that his vision was far from perfect: 20/70 in the
      left eye and 20/60 in the right. (Elsewhere in the report, the
      doctor ascribes the worse vision to the right eye.) The exam appears
      to be the work of a general practitioner, and there's no indication
      he examined Fong's retina.

      Dr. Harry Hamburger, a Miami ophthalmologist and eye trauma expert,
      said the scar on Fong's retina would have been evident in 1950, and
      there's no question it was the result of the 1944 crash.

      In 1951, the Air Force recalled Fong to serve during the Korean War
      in the Air Intelligence Group in Washington, D.C.

      His official military medical exam in March 1951 reports near
      perfect vision in both eyes.

      In contrast, various reports written by a Bolling Air Force Base
      flight surgeon show Fong was cleared only for temporary flight
      duty: "Officer has history of severe eye and spinal injuries. Some
      hearing loss. Vision loss due to air crash mainly to left eye.
      Severe spinal injury from impact."

      But the VA never pulled Fong's flight records, which often don't
      find their way into the official service medical files that are used
      to determine a veteran's eligibility for compensation. Fong had no
      way of knowing this.

      A week after he was discharged from active duty in April 1953, Fong
      reopened his VA disability claim. Again, it was denied.

      In 1997, this time with the expert help of a service officer from
      the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, Fong filed another
      claim with the VA for his blindness, as well as a new claim for his
      back injury.

      He also got a piece of advice from another veteran that he's
      followed ever since.

      "He told me, 'Frank, when they turn you down, appeal it. Appeal the
      crap out of them,' is what he said, 'and you'll get something.' And
      I noticed each time I appealed I got something."

      At a reunion of his World War II fighter group, Fong learned how to
      get copies of his flight logs to prove his claims. With this new
      evidence, the VA granted his claims for blindness and back injury in
      October 1998, making payments retroactive to the filing of his 1997
      claim.

      The service officer also recognized Fong had the classic symptoms of
      post-traumatic stress disorder. He sent Fong to the Miami Vet
      Center, where counselors diagnosed him with the disorder, records
      show, and he began to get treatment.

      But the VA denied his post-traumatic stress disorder claim, based on
      a VA doctor's opinion that Fong didn't have the disorder. So the
      service officer helped Fong get two additional expert opinions to
      refute the denial. Eventually another VA psychiatrist said what the
      others had said all along: Fong suffers from severe post-traumatic
      stress disorder. In June 2000, the VA finally granted his claim.

      In 2002, the VA denied Fong's request that the effective date on his
      blindness claim be set back to 1950 - the date he first applied.
      He's been appealing that ever since.

      • Richard Gudewicz, of suburban Detroit, contracted hepatitis C in
      1974 during a blood transfusion at an Army hospital in Germany. It
      took 20 years before the liver disease was diagnosed, leading to the
      removal of his spleen and the use of powerful medications that left
      him fatigued and unable to work. In 2000, the VA denied his claim
      for compensation. His congressman eventually came to the rescue.

      • It never occurred to World War II veteran Louis Comparin, of Fort
      Worth, Texas, to file a disability claim for the numbness in his
      fingers, which regularly causes things to slip from his hands. Then
      he met Cleo Dollarhide, a service officer for the Military Order of
      the Purple Heart.

      • Donald Hart, a Fort Worth-area World War II veteran, won his case
      with the VA and a big check for back pay (an estimated $63,000) on
      the day he died. The case closed with his death and his family got
      nothing from the VA.


      =========================


      Discharged and Dishonored: Shortchanging America's Veterans
      By Chris Adams and Alison Young
      http://www.truthout.org/docs_2005/printer_030705F.shtml


      When help is needed, ex-soldiers battle delays, inconsistent
      rulings, inadequate representation.
      DRY RIDGE, Ky. - Like thousands of his fellow veterans of
      America's wars, Alfred Brown died waiting.

      In 1945, when he was a 19-year-old soldier fighting in Italy,
      shrapnel from an enemy shell ripped into his abdomen. His wounds
      were so severe that he was twice administered last rites. When Brown
      came home, the government that had promised to care for its wounded
      veterans instead shorted him.

      Not until 1981, however, did Brown realize that his monthly
      disability check didn't cover all the injuries he'd suffered. He
      launched what would become a 21-year battle.

      "As a member of the so-called 'Greatest Generation,' I am well
      aware of the large numbers of us passing away," he wrote the
      nation's chief veterans judge in 2001. "I am prepared to meet our
      Creator. My fear is that your court will not make a decision in my
      case."

      Listen to Alfred Brown The WWII vet's efforts to get his
      benefits ended - with his death.

      Brown was right. He died a year later, and his case died with
      him. As he closed the books on the case, Judge Kenneth Kramer
      acknowledged that Brown might have been right all along. Had Brown
      not died, the judge wrote, "I believe that the Court would likely
      have so held."

      Tens of thousands of other veterans have returned from war only
      to find that they have to fight their own government to win the
      disability payments they're owed. A Knight Ridder investigation has
      found that injured soldiers who petition the U.S. Department of
      Veterans Affairs for those payments are often doomed by lengthy
      delays, hurt by inconsistent rulings and failed by the veterans
      representatives who try to help them.

      The investigation was based on interviews with veterans and
      their families from around the country and on a review of internal
      VA documents and computerized databases that had never been released
      to the public. Many of the records were made available only after
      Knight Ridder sued the agency in federal court.

      Huge Agency

      The VA is a mammoth agency that serves 25 million veterans with
      a far-flung health care system and a separate disability and pension
      operation. The agency spends over $60 billion a year, more than $20
      billion of it on disability compensation.

      But the Knight Ridder investigation found that the VA serves
      neither taxpayers nor veterans well. Some veterans never get what
      they're due, while antiquated regulations mean that others are paid
      for disabilities that have little effect on their ability to hold
      jobs or aren't related to their military service.

      For America's veterans, plus the thousands of soldiers now
      returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the investigation identified
      three points where cases often go wrong: the selection of a special
      representative called a veterans service officer, the review by a
      regional VA office and the filing of an appeal.

      Among Knight Ridder's findings:

      Many of the VA-accredited experts who help veterans with their cases
      receive minimal training and are rarely tested to ensure their
      competence. These veterans service officers work for nonprofit
      organizations such as the American Legion, as well as states and
      counties, but their quality is uneven, and that often means the
      difference between a successful claim and a botched one.


      The VA's network of 57 regional offices produces wildly inconsistent
      results, which means that a veteran in St. Paul, Minn., for example,
      is likely to receive different treatment and more generous
      disability checks than one from Detroit.


      Veterans face lengthy delays if they appeal the VA's decisions. The
      average wait is nearly three years, and many veterans wait 10 years
      for a final ruling. In the past decade, several thousand veterans
      died before their cases were resolved, according to an analysis of
      VA data.
      "How a veteran seeking benefits gets treated should not be an
      accident of geography," said George Basher, the director of the New
      York State Division of Veterans' Affairs, one of 50 state agencies
      that help veterans. "Unfortunately, the current system makes that a
      virtual certainty."

      In interviews late last year, then-VA Secretary Anthony Principi
      and other VA officials admitted to many of the agency's
      shortcomings, but they said things have gotten better since the Bush
      administration took over. "This agency was underwater in 2001,"
      Principi said. "My people have made tremendous progress."

      The current secretary, R. James Nicholson, who was sworn in
      recently, had no comment.

      Delays Persist

      There have been some improvements in the last three years. But
      when it comes to delays, cases that need to be redone and backlogs,
      things are the same or worse than they were in the 1990s, Knight
      Ridder found, when the agency vowed to clean up its act.

      For the family of Kentucky veteran Alfred Brown, that decade
      brought nothing but frustration. If a decision had come before he
      died, Brown could have been entitled to nearly 45 years of back pay,
      his attorney said. Based on VA payment rates, that would have been
      worth about $30,000.

      "It wasn't so much the money," said his son Clayton Brown, on a
      day when he visited his father's grave north of Lexington. "He felt
      he was robbed. He almost gave his life up, and this is what he was
      getting in return?"

      VA workers are reminded daily of the pledge by Abraham
      Lincoln " . . . to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and
      for his widow and his orphan . . . ."

      But the task isn't as simple as it used to be.

      The VA makes disability payments for injuries as obvious as an
      amputated leg and as complex as post-traumatic stress disorder. They
      include combat wounds and peacetime injuries, since veterans are
      serving their country whether they're in a Humvee in Iraq or in boot
      camp. Veterans are given ratings from zero to 100 depending on how
      severe their disabilities are. Payments for a single veteran range
      from $108 to $2,299 a month, and they're supposed to reflect the
      vet's lost earnings potential.

      But, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the
      disability payments are based on 60-year-old labor-market
      assumptions. So veterans who have desk jobs in today's service and
      information economy can draw checks based on the fact their
      disabilities would keep them from good manufacturing jobs.

      Complex Illnesses

      The system stems from a time when war injuries were often less
      complex. Today's soldier faces mental illnesses unacknowledged two
      generations ago, as well as wounds that were often fatal in earlier
      wars.

      Beyond that are tough fiscal realities. The Congressional Budget
      Office has already indicated that the VA could save significantly if
      it eliminated new payments for certain diseases not connected to
      military service. While most payments can be linked directly to
      service, veterans also can qualify merely if they're diagnosed soon
      after their military service.

      The GAO offered one example: A Navy veteran was hospitalized
      with a heart condition three months after his induction. Although
      the disease had its inception in childhood, the veteran eventually
      received disability payments based on the VA's highest rating. In
      all, the VA pays nearly $1 billion a year for disabilities that the
      GAO says generally aren't directly linked to veterans' service in
      the military.

      Many veterans' cases go bad even before they file claims.

      Applying for disability benefits requires veterans to navigate a
      labyrinth of bureaucratic rules and unforgiving deadlines. It can
      require the skill of an investigator and the mind of a physician.

      That's why national veterans groups have for decades provided
      free help. About 40 veterans service organizations, such as the
      American Legion and Disabled American Veterans, are authorized to
      handle VA claims, as are many states.

      But Knight Ridder found that the network of VA-accredited
      service officers is a patchwork of well-meaning helpers whose
      training and expertise vary widely. Contrary to its own regulations,
      the VA does little to ensure that veterans receive competent
      representation from veterans service organizations. Yet the agency
      prohibits vets from hiring their own attorneys until after their
      claims have been denied and they're generally years into the appeals
      process.

      Picking an Advocate

      Two-thirds of the veterans who submit claims use service
      officers, and picking the right one can determine whether they get
      the full payment they're due, a fraction of it or nothing.

      "The best advocates can be very good and lousy ones can be
      awful," said Ron Abrams, the joint executive director of the
      National Veterans Legal Services Program, which trains service
      officers for the American Legion and other veterans groups.

      New evidence from Washington state illustrates for the first
      time the odds veterans face in this service officer roulette.

      Since July 2003, the Washington State Department of Veterans
      Affairs has tracked the outcome of every claim filed by veterans
      groups that receive state funding. The groups' success rates range
      from 53 percent to 81 percent. Among the busiest individual service
      officers, those handling 30 or more decided claims, the success
      rates can range from 35 percent to 98 percent, the state's data show.

      "You might be proud of the fact you filed 100 claims. But if
      pretty much everything you filed was denied, it would cause some
      concern," said John Lee, the department's deputy director.

      The percentage of the Washington groups' claims being granted is
      on the rise - from about 50 percent overall when the program began
      to about 70 percent in recent months. Lee attributes it to the
      accountability the program requires.

      Although they fought the effort for years, the state's
      politically powerful veterans groups now see its merit, and they've
      changed their training and oversight as a result. The program is "an
      invaluable tool to see exactly what the strengths and weaknesses are
      across the state," said Court Fraley, the Veterans of Foreign Wars
      state service director.

      Veterans officials in other states said such performance
      disparities are certain to exist nationally because the training of
      service officers is so inconsistent.

      That's not the way it's supposed to be.

      The VA, through its national accreditation program, is supposed
      to ensure that all service officers are "responsible"
      and "qualified." But the VA program does little more than
      rubberstamp names submitted by veterans groups. About 11,000 service
      officers are currently on the VA's roster - about 80 percent are
      accredited through nonprofit groups.

      Training Varies

      VA regulatory files, obtained after Knight Ridder's lawsuit,
      reveal that the agency has done little in decades to determine the
      adequacy of the training provided by veterans groups or to check the
      quality of the claims prepared by their officers. Only rarely does
      the VA suspend or revoke a service officer's accreditation. When it
      does happen, it's generally the result of criminal charges rather
      than incompetence.

      "What we do is take it on the word of the service organization
      that the individual has had sufficient training," said Martin Sendek
      of the VA's general counsel's office.

      That training, however, varies widely, according to a Knight
      Ridder survey of 13 of the largest veterans groups and all 50 state
      veterans departments. At one end of the spectrum is Disabled
      American Veterans, which has full-time paid national service
      officers and a 16-month training and testing program that's so
      regimented that it qualifies for 10 hours of college credit.

      Groups such as American Ex-Prisoners of War and Catholic War
      Veterans rely largely on part-time volunteers who aren't required to
      complete any courses or pass any tests. "We don't get paid, so we're
      not going to be that strict with these people," said Doris Jenks,
      the national training director for American Ex-Prisoners of War.

      Nonprofits generally have less stringent requirements for
      service officers than those working for the 33 state veterans
      agencies that responded to the survey.

      Just 62 percent of nonprofits and 73 percent of the state
      agencies require continuing education for all service officers,
      something experts consider crucial given the VA's constantly
      changing rules.

      Only 38 percent of nonprofits and 67 percent of states require a
      test before recommending that the VA accredit a representative. And
      once accredited, few service officers are ever tested to ensure their
      competence: While 27 percent of the states require later testing,
      only one nonprofit, Disabled American Veterans, had that requirement.

      VA officials bristled at suggestions that their oversight of
      accredited service officers is lax and said they're unaware of any
      systemic problems. Retired Vice Adm. Daniel Cooper, the VA's
      undersecretary for benefits, said the VA fixes any mistakes that
      service officers might make. If anything needs to be done to make an
      application complete, Cooper said, "we do it."

      General counsel Tim McClain noted that veterans have extensive
      appeal rights. "There are a lot of checks and balances in the
      system," he said.

      The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, however, has
      repeatedly ruled that veterans are out of luck when they've been
      steered wrong by VA-accredited service officers.

      Ask Gerry Corwin.

      As the navigator aboard a B-24 bomber during World War II,
      Corwin survived more than 30 missions over Japanese-controlled
      waters. He came home to Minneapolis with two Air Medals - and
      disabling nightmares and flashbacks.

      Corwin's Nightmares

      There were images of his buddies burning in planes crashed on
      runways and of a friend killed on a mission that Corwin persuaded
      him to take. By December 1984, those nightmares began to overtake
      the TV executive.

      Corwin applied for disability benefits and was denied, in part
      because the VA couldn't find many of his military records, which had
      burned in a 1973 fire at a national archive in St. Louis.

      So Corwin went to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs
      and enlisted the help of Kirk Jones, a service officer who'd become
      VA-accredited a year earlier through his state and the American
      Legion.

      Jones submitted a three-sentence letter on Corwin's behalf and
      didn't take any steps to prove Corwin's claim. He didn't, for
      example, push for a psychiatric examination from the VA. He didn't
      round up statements from Corwin's crew to corroborate that they'd
      been sent home in May 1945 for "combat fatigue."

      "I should have suggested a VA examination," Jones, who no longer
      is a service officer, said recently. He acknowledged that he'd had
      minimal training when he first handled Corwin's claim.

      That 1984 claim went nowhere.

      In 1995, Jones, who by then had gained extensive experience plus
      classroom training, restarted Corwin's claim. He did all the things
      he hadn't done a decade earlier, and more.

      This time, Jones helped Corwin win compensation for post-
      traumatic stress disorder and a heart problem. Jones filed several
      appeals, and each time the VA granted more benefits, eventually
      declaring Corwin totally disabled in 1998.

      Even so, the veterans court ruled last summer that Corwin can't
      collect back pay from 1984-1995 because the proper documents weren't
      filed in 1986 to keep his original claim alive.

      Corwin's loss is tens of thousands of dollars, he and his lawyer
      estimate.

      "It would mean a home. Let's start with that," said Corwin, 82,
      who with his wife, Katherine, has been living in a house her family
      owns in rural Mississippi.

      "To have to come back and to fight 20 years to get what you're
      supposed to be given, and to fight your own government for it, is
      disappointing," he said.

      Technology Falls Behind

      Even when a service officer does a good job, veterans' claims
      often get bogged down in the VA's 57 regional offices, where
      veterans' claims are processed.

      In an electronic age, these regional offices are a throwback to
      an ink-and-paper world. In Waco, Texas, the records room is almost
      the length of a football field, with row after row of file cabinets -
      2,700 in all - containing records that date back six decades.

      Workers wheel massive brown folders with rubber bands around
      them around on carts, shifting them from one table to the next as
      they move through the approval process. In the constant shuffle of
      paper, things get lost and mistakes get made.

      Nationwide, errors are made in 13 percent of claims, more than
      three times the agency's hoped-for rate of 4 percent, according to a
      VA quality-control database that reviews a sample of the decisions.
      That translates to 103,000 errors a year; in many cases they can
      result in either an overpayment or an underpayment of benefits.

      "I don't think anybody is proud of the fact that we have" a 13
      percent error rate, said Michael Walcoff, who oversees the agency's
      regional offices. Errors often trigger appeals, sending thousands of
      veterans into an ongoing cycle of mistakes, appeals, rehearings,
      mistakes, appeals, rehearings.

      In some regional offices, the error rate last year was far
      worse - as high as 23 percent in Wilmington, Del. (The low was 3
      percent, in Des Moines,
      Iowa.) And such varied performances affect nearly every aspect of a
      veteran's experience:

      The percentage of all types of claims that are approved ranges
      from 89 percent in St. Paul to less than 70 percent in Jackson,
      Miss., and Cheyenne, Wyo., according to an annual VA survey of
      veterans.

      Perhaps not surprisingly, "satisfaction" among veterans is
      highest in St. Paul, at 73 percent, compared with 50 percent in
      Atlanta.

      Diagnosis Impacts Payment

      Knight Ridder found that disability ratings, which determine the
      size of a veteran's monthly check, also vary widely.

      An analysis of 3.4 million veterans claims shows that major
      mental ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and
      schizophrenia, are subject to bigger regional swings than major
      physical ailments such as bad backs and knees. For example, veterans
      with PTSD assigned to the Wilmington office are more likely to have
      the highest disability rating than their counterparts in Lincoln,
      Neb. In Delaware, 34 percent of those with PTSD have the highest
      rating; in Lincoln, it's 10 percent.

      Diagnosing mental disorders is more subjective, and parts of the
      country have been slow to recognize them. Different training
      standards in the past may also have contributed to regional VA
      differences.

      Because the major psychiatric disabilities on average pay more
      than the major physical ones, the wider swings have a dramatic
      impact on veterans' payments. The different ratings may help explain
      a puzzle noticed by veterans every time the VA releases its annual
      report: Average disability checks vary by state.

      The VA wouldn't comment on Knight Ridder's analysis but said in
      a statement that it's investigating regional differences, which it
      attributed to "extremely complex" factors. The agency "is committed
      to treating every veteran's claim fairly and equitably" and has
      nationwide training programs to help eliminate uneven treatment.

      The GAO last year reported that the VA "cannot provide
      reasonable assurance that similarly situated veterans who submit
      claims for the same impairment to different regional offices receive
      reasonably consistent decisions."

      The final minefield is the VA appeals system, where claims often
      linger.

      It's a problem the VA recognizes. "It takes too long. We all
      agree on that," said Ron Garvin, acting chairman of the Board of
      Veterans' Appeals.

      With the average disability payment now $7,860 a year, back-
      benefit awards can be substantial because an award is calculated as
      though the VA made the right decision when the claim was first
      filed. Some veterans with severe disabilities win $100,000 or more.

      But if a veteran dies with his or her case under appeal, the
      case dies, too. In the past decade, more than 13,700 veterans died
      while their cases were in some stage of the appeals process,
      according to a Knight Ridder analysis of a VA appeals records
      database. (While precise estimates aren't available, the VA said
      experience suggests a few thousand of them wouldn't have actively
      pursued their appeals.)

      Even if a veteran wins a case but dies before receiving payment,
      his family is often out of luck. Unless the veteran had an eligible
      spouse or dependent child, the money stays in the U.S. Treasury.

      Money Recalled

      The agency goes so far as to take back money it's already paid.
      George Wilkes, a World War II sailor, spent the last five years of
      his life fighting to increase his disability rating, which stemmed
      from a spinal cord injury. In April 1997, the VA agreed with him and
      said he was due back benefits of $109,464.

      Wilkes, ill with pneumonia, died four days later. Six days after
      that, the VA wired the money into his bank account.

      Once the VA realized Wilkes had died, it wouldn't let his family
      keep the money. Although he had no immediate family, Wilkes' nephew
      and niece had tended to him for years, allowing him to stay in his
      New Orleans home.

      Had the money come years earlier, it "would have had a
      substantial impact on his life," said nephew Ray Wilkes of
      Covington, La. "His house was pretty deplorable and was
      deteriorating. But he was determined to live on his own."

      In an October interview, then-Secretary Principi said he
      was "stung" when he learned a few years ago how common it is for
      veterans to die with their cases in limbo. While some deaths are
      inevitable, given the VA's elderly clientele, "it's not acceptable,"
      he said. "We need to do something about it."

      He also suggested that a recently formed commission on benefits
      could reconsider the legal barriers that prevent heirs other than a
      wife or dependent child from receiving a deceased veteran's back
      benefits.

      The VA has admitted that its processes are too slow and too
      prone to errors. And veterans have told the agency that they suspect
      the worst: that the agency is "just stalling, waiting for them to
      die so the claim won't have to be paid," veterans said in focus
      groups in 1995.

      But the agency has repeatedly ignored recommendations to
      eliminate redundant steps in the process to speed things up. One
      exhaustive review, completed in 1996, declared the entire claims and
      appeals process "cumbersome and outmoded" and in need of an overhaul.

      Since then, "I think things are basically the same," said the
      agency's Walcoff. "I wouldn't say that we have changed the system in
      any major way."

      Vows of Change Unfulfilled

      In fact, VA data show that delays and the percentage of cases
      being sent back for re-hearings are basically unchanged since the
      agency vowed to reduce them.

      In the mid-1990s, about the time it promised to speed things up,
      the VA also denied Berlie Bowman's claim.

      Bowman had gone to Vietnam in 1967, an outgoing kid following in
      his father's military footsteps. "When he was drafted, he went
      without a fuss," said his sister Paulette. "He was a different
      person when he came back."

      He was skittish, quick to anger, uneasy in crowds. The family
      trod warily around him - "learned to wake him from a distance by
      touching his feet with something," his VA file said. Over three
      decades, he ran through 30 jobs; he lived in a small trailer on a
      curvy North Carolina road.

      His first disability claim, in 1971 for "nerves," was denied.
      His second try, in 1995, met a similar fate.

      But that time, Bowman pushed back.

      Working with an attorney, he assembled evidence to show that he
      had post-traumatic stress disorder and to document that it had
      started in Vietnam. The case wound up and down the system, receiving
      six different rulings, until Bowman fell ill with pancreatic cancer.

      On June 16, 2004, the Board of Veterans' Appeals finally agreed
      with Bowman's claim. It declared that "credible supporting evidence"
      showed that Bowman suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder
      caused by his time in Vietnam, just as Bowman had contended for nine
      years.

      Bowman's attorney immediately pestered the VA for Bowman's back
      benefits, dating to 1995. By then, Bowman's cancer treatment had
      been stopped.

      On June 21, attorney Dan Krasnegor or his assistant talked with
      the VA every two hours. On June 22, they were told that the official
      disability rating was complete and that only final signatures were
      needed before Bowman's check for $53,784 could be cut. "Oh, it's in
      the computer system," they were told.

      Berlie Bowman died that night, and his claim died with him. No
      check was sent.

      At his burial, Bowman's mother accepted a smartly folded
      American flag from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Seventeen old
      soldiers stood in formation in the rain. A bugler played taps;
      riflemen splintered the silence with a three-gun salute.

      "The march of our comrade Berlie Bowman is over," intoned the
      VFW's chaplain.


      ===============


      Chinese Americans and all Asian Americans should take great pride in
      this Chinese American fighter pilot who earned two distinguished
      flying crosses, 8 air medals, a bronze star and a purple heart and
      more.


      What are your readers doing about going to the aid of the great
      Chinese American hero, ex-fighter pilot Frank Fong, who is listed
      in your 1942 time line. Knight Ridder has recently completed an
      investigation which broke in newspapers across the U.S. on March
      6th regarding the abuse of this great Chinese hero by the V.A. in
      America. People of Chinese heritage who are proud of their heritage
      and their contribution to American should make a concentrated effort
      to do whatever they possibly can do to stop the abuse of this great
      Chinese American. Please "google" fighter pilot Frank Fong or go
      to www.krwashington.com to read about the abuse of this great
      Chinese war hero by the V.A. Please take whatever steps you can take
      to contact your legislators and others in a position to address this
      great injustice.


      Your readers should know that Colonel Frank Fong, now almost 86
      years of age, was initially refused entrance into the U.S. military
      as a fighter pilot because of his Chinese heritage (yes..because of
      who his parents were). He appealed by way of telegram to Five Star
      General "Hap" Arnold, head of the Air Force, who personally
      appointed Colonel Fong into the military. Colonel Frank Fong broke
      the barrier for all Chinese Americans.

      Thank you for your support of this great Chinese American who is an
      inspiration to all.

      Sharon Mullane
      e-mail:sharongwyn@...
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.