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After 55-year wait, veteran faces new delays in getting compensation

WASHINGTON—Over the past 55 years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has repeatedly failed World War II veteran Frank Fong. So he's angry—but not terribly surprised—that the VA has now messed up his hard-won disability payment.

The VA was supposed to pay Fong, a highly decorated fighter pilot partially blinded during combat, $66,806 in October—money he's been waiting for since 1950.

But as of Veterans Day, the VA had sent him just $1,414.25.

"When I got that almost a week ago, I almost hit the ceiling. I thought, `Is this all I'm getting?'" said Fong, 86, a retired commercial artist who lives in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Weston, Fla. "Someone screwed up."

The VA issued a statement Tuesday saying Fong should receive the rest of his money before the end of the month. A check for $52,000 is expected to be mailed from Austin, Texas, on Thursday. Another check for about $13,000—which the VA had wrongly withheld as attorneys' fees—is now expected to be mailed to Fong on Nov. 21, the VA said.

"Action to pay Mr. Fong was taken in early October but because of the complexity, the case required the review of numerous staff to ensure the payment issued was accurate," the statement said. The complexity of Fong's case and the protracted period of time covered by the retroactive payments "inhibited our ability to pay within the 30 days" and required it to be sent in more than one disbursement, the VA said.

It's the latest delay in Fong's half-century battle to get VA compensation for the blindness in his left eye, caused when glass shards gouged his retina in a 1944 crash of his P-47 Thunderbolt. Despite serious injuries, Fong continued to fly throughout the war, including two missions on D-Day, according to military records.

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.

In 1950, the VA denied Fong's first disability claim for the eye injury when the VA's doctor failed to diagnose the scar on his retina. It took until 1998 for the VA to concede that the plane crash had caused Fong's blindness. The VA began compensating him then, but made the payments retroactive only to 1997.

Fong's case was featured in a Knight Ridder investigation in March of how the VA wrongly denies and shortchanges veterans who seek compensation for their disabilities.

A Board of Veterans Appeals judge ruled Sept. 20 that Fong was entitled to disability payments for his blindness for the period July 1950 to August 1997—the 47 years the VA had wrongly denied his claim.

VA officials, in a Sept. 27 Knight Ridder article, said Fong's check would be expedited because of his age and that he would have the money within 30 days.

But that hasn't happened.

Sharon Mullane, Fong's friend and an attorney who has handled his case for free for the past three years, said she's stunned by what appears to be massive confusion within the VA about how much Fong is owed, and when—or how—he'll get his money.

"They're telling all kinds of stories: The computer doesn't go back to 1951. The check has to come from out West. Then they said the money would be wired to Mr. Fong. Then no, it's not being wired," Mullane said.

Then $1,414 was wired last week into Fong's bank account, Mullane said, and VA officials said a paper check for $52,028 would be on the way by Thursday.

But that doesn't add up to $66,806, and Mullane wanted to know why Fong was being shortchanged. So she called the VA again.

The VA's explanation, she said: About $13,000 had been withheld as a check for attorneys' fees.

"But I'm the attorney and I'm not charging any fees," Mullane said.

The VA sent the attorneys' fees check to itself, she said. The VA then told Mullane it would take another 60 days to reissue that check to Fong, but she said VA officials now appear to be relenting on that.

"When this thing is over, I hope people understand we have a torture chamber here for veterans and it's called the VA," Mullane said. "I'm just so appalled at the way they're treated."

Knight Ridder's investigation found that more than 13,700 veterans died in the past decade while their cases were in the VA appeals process—some while waiting for their checks to be mailed. Under VA rules, if a veteran wins his or her case but dies before cashing the check, the government generally keeps the money.

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To read Knight Ridder's original investigation of Frank Fong's case and to listen to audio of him talking about World War II, go to: http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/special(underscore)packages/veterans/10915821.htm

To read Knight Ridder's investigation of the VA's disability compensation system, go to:

www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/special(underscore)packages/veterans/

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