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 had scarred his left eye and eventually taken his sight.
It took two more years for the VA to agree that Fong suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. And nearly three years before it fully compensated 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.
"It's the principle of the thing," said Fong, 85, a retired commercial artist who lives in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It's the whole damn idea that they'd jerk me around like this."
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 fight for years.
"I always thought our government would take care of us," said Fong, who became a pilot even though the Army initially rejected him for flight school because he's of Chinese ancestry.
Numerous flight surgeon records document that Fong was badly injured in a plane crash during World War II, was hospitalized and had his flight rating downgraded.
Dr. Harry Hamburger, a Miami eye trauma expert, said there's no question that Fong is blind because of a 1944 plane crash that sent shards of glass into the retina of his left eye.
"He's got a permanent scar there," said Hamburger, a former consulting surgeon at Florida's Homestead Air Force Base who's examined Fong and his military records.
But the VA denied Fong's first disability claim in 1950 after a VA doctor didn't diagnose the scar on his retina and the flight surgeon records of the accident weren't in his official military medical file.
It wasn't until 1997 that Fong sought help from the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs and learned how to gather evidence to prove his blindness claim. The department's service officer also helped him successfully file claims for a host of other war injuries.
Around the same time, a fellow veteran gave him some advice. "He told me, `Frank, when they turn you down, appeal it. Appeal the crap out of them ... and you'll get something.' And I noticed each time I appealed I got something," Fong said.
But Fong hasn't had any success convincing the VA that he's entitled to nearly 50 years of back pay on his blindness claim.
Early last month, based on questions raised by Knight Ridder, VA officials said they would take another look at Fong's case.
On Feb. 16, the VA agreed that Fong's eye injury existed back in 1950, but 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.
Fong says he'll file another appeal.
"They don't want to pay out the money," Fong said. "It's as simple as that."