WASHINGTON—Fighter pilot Frank Fong, who lost sight in one eye as he battled Nazis during World War II, has finally won his war against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
More than half a century after he sought compensation for his injury, the VA said Tuesday that it was sending Fong, 86, a check for about $67,000 in payments it should have started making in 1950.
"Veterans have to be persistent. If you let them jack you around you'll get nothing," said Fong, a retired commercial artist who lives in Weston, Fla.
Fong, who overcame discrimination as a Chinese-American to serve as a pilot, won some of the Army Air Corps' highest honors for bravery and skill: two Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight Air Medals. His case was featured in March in a Knight Ridder investigation of how the VA wrongly denies and shortchanges veterans' claims for disability compensation.
A Board of Veterans' Appeals judge who heard Fong's case earlier this summer issued an order last week telling the VA that Fong is entitled to disability payments for the blindness in his left eye for the period July 1950 to August 1997.
Fong filed a claim in 1950, but the VA denied it. It took until 1998 for the VA to concede that a plane crash had scarred Fong's eye and caused his blindness. The VA began compensating him then, but made the payments retroactive only to 1997.
Until now, the VA has refused Fong's appeals to be paid for the 47 years before that.
Numerous military flight-surgeon records document that Fong was badly injured when his P-47 Thunderbolt crashed in the spring of 1944. The VA denied Fong's 1950 disability claim 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.
For decades, the VA has focused largely on documents in Fong's military files that sometimes said he had perfect vision in both eyes. Fong has said he kept flying despite the blindness in one eye because his country needed him. He said doctors, at a time of war, were willing to fudge paperwork.
Veterans Law Judge J.E. Day, in his ruling, noted Fong's credible testimony along with an eye expert's opinion that it "would have been impossible for the retina in his left eye to be traumatized, heal, and then deteriorate again, as the records seem to indicate."
Fong should receive his check within 30 days, but under VA rules it will be based on payment rates in effect decades ago. In 1950 his disability was worth $45 a month, which increased gradually to $274 a month by 1997. Fong will receive no interest for the years the VA didn't pay.
The VA said in a statement about the case: "Recent testimony and expert opinion allowed VA to do everything possible to help the veteran."
Fong's lawyer disagrees. "So many veterans live and die without getting their compensation because they don't have access to a lawyer who can wade through all the red tape," said Sharon Mullane, a friend of Fong's who helped him free of charge.
"You've got a person here who is 86 years of age and you hope and pray he gets this small benefit while he's still alive," Mullane said.
Knight Ridder's investigation found that more than 13,700 veterans died in the past decade while their cases were in the VA's appeals process.
"If you hadn't raised a ruckus. I'm sure nothing would have happened," Fong said of the newspaper's investigation.
To read Knight Ridder's investigation of Frank Fong's battle with the VA and to hear him talk about his case, go to: www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/special(underline)packages/veterans/10915821.htm