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, Fla.
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, Fla., 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 and again in 2004, 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 ever since.
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."