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VET OWED AN APOLOGY.

Byline: DENNIS McCARTHY

LA CRESCENTA - Russell King, your country owes you an apology for the way you've been treated.

You served bravely in World War II, fought at the Battle of the Bulge, and were a prisoner of war for five months - spending Christmas Day 1944 digging graves outside the concentration camp barbed wire to bury the bodies of your buddies who couldn't make it. You could barely stand yourself from malnutrition.

When you were discharged from the service a year later in December 1945, you were awarded the Purple Heart for the wounds you received in action at Luchenwald, Germany.

Your country also awarded you the World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal and European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars.

It's all there in your honorable discharge records - what you did for this country more than 55 years ago when we needed you and hundreds of thousands of other young men to leave their families and go halfway around the world to save the United States.

You were never the same man when you got home, your wife Pauline says. You had seen too much, been hurt too badly.

What you never expected was that your own government would add to the hurt.

When your hearing started to go and you became totally deaf in 1950 - losing your job in the process because a deaf construction worker was just too risky to insure - you went to the government for help.

Your doctor said the hearing loss certainly could be service-related. You knew there wasn't any ``could be'' about it. It was related.

You remembered all those nights in the concentration camp sleeping with one eye open because you didn't know whether this would be another night the Nazis wanted to have some fun by setting off a grenade outside the barracks - blowing out the windows and deafening the sleeping POWs being blasted out of their bunks.

Your government said that after carefully considering your claim, it determined your hearing condition was not incurred by military service.

You asked them to reconsider and they did, denying your claim again and again, until you finally missed a one-year appeals deadline, and couldn't file anymore. It was the law. Sorry.

What they did give you in 1961 was a 10 percent disability for varicose veins worth $19 a month. Last year, that payment had gotten all the way up to $101 a month.

All those years you were shortchanged never sat right with you or Pauline. The government shouldn't be turning its back on guys who came home different than when they went off to fight a war, you argued.

But no one seemed to be listening, Russ.

You spent most of those years bouncing around from odd job to odd job, but employers weren't much interested in hiring a deaf vet permanently. So you started your own small, one-man construction business out of your La Crescenta home, and eked out a living.

Russ, you weren't alone in feeling bitter, says Martin Christie, commander of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of American Ex-POWs. A lot of guys did.

``The handling of disability cases is different now than it was back then,'' Christie says. ``Then, it was how many of these cases can we winnow out and not have to pay.

``Now, it's let's make sure we're doing it right and not screwing these guys,'' he said. ``We have some people in the VA championing us now.''

You've got one, Russ, but they won't tell me his name. All I know is that in July 2000 when your file crossed his desk at the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Los Angeles Regional Office, he knew something wasn't right.

``He's a combat vet who, like a lot of us, knows how close we came to becoming that POW,'' said John Paxson, public affairs officer for VA regional center.

``American history, for as far back as you want to go, has had its wrinkles in dealing with veterans, but our job right now is to ensure that every ex-POW gets every VA benefit he is entitled to,'' Paxson said.

On his own, Russ, the guy put you in for something called an ex-POW protocol exam, and in March, you got the good news.

The government that said in 1960 your hearing loss was not service-related changed its mind. You were now 100 percent hearing-loss disabled.

Instead of just getting $101 a month for varicose veins, you'd be getting $2,558 a month full disability now.

They cut you a check for $17,000, dating back to July 2000, when your case was reopened after being sent to them by George Dixon, a former DAV representative at the Sepulveda VA, who agreed you weren't getting all you deserved.

Pauline thanked them for the $17,000, then asked where the money from the last 40 years was.

``They said I should be happy, that the $17,000 was enough for us to go around the world,'' she said last week.

Russ is turning 81 next month and has cancer, she told them. A nice trip around the world right now isn't exactly in their plans.

Pauline was notified last week that her husband's claim for an earlier date of service disability, say around 1960 instead of 2000, had been denied.

She plans to appeal under something called the ``clear and unmistakable error'' policy, which allows vets relief for past VA screw-ups and oversights.

``He was deaf then; he's deaf now,'' Pauline says. ``What changed? If we deserve the money now, we deserved it 40 years ago.''

Dixon, who is now a veterans benefits counselor for the county of Los Angeles at the Sepulveda VA outpatient clinic, says Pauline and Russ should continue to appeal.

``Tell them to continue the battle because it ain't over till it's over,'' he said Friday.

Also weighing in is the Kings' congressman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, who has already contacted the VA on King's behalf, said Paul Hubler, Schiff's deputy chief of staff.

Whichever way the final decision goes, the whole thing stinks.

It shouldn't be that a man who spent Christmas Day in a concentration camp burying his buddies, ducking grenades being tossed by laughing Nazis, should come home and be put through all this by his own government.

Having to go hat in hand for 40 years for the disability payments he deserves.

I know it's late, Russ, but it's the best we can do.

For what it's worth, your country owes you an apology.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

(color) Russell King is fighting on two fronts - for his life against cancer, and against the VA, seeking long-denied, World War II-earned benefits.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 19, 2001
Words:1126
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