Combat veterans face ‘cruel’ struggle to prove their service to VA, amid missing records

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Stanley Friedman was shot at. The ship he was on was attacked by enemy bombers. He saw a landmine blow apart a truck carrying two dozen of his fellow soldiers. One of them died in his arms.

But after he came home from World War II, he found himself embroiled in another battle -- this time, with the Veterans Administration, as he tried to get his benefits.

In the decades that followed the war, Friedman suffered from anxiety, depression and nightmares which lasted his entire life, affecting his job and his family.

Yet, as he sought treatment and benefits, the Veterans Administration told him the military records documenting his service couldn't be found. Despite the fact Friedman knew very specific details of the dates and places he experienced the most traumatic events, there was no proof, so he wasn't entitled to benefits, the VA said.

"I have a huge box of letters that he sent to the VA over the years in his attempt to get benefits," said Friedman's wife of 61 years, Minna Rae. "He tried over and over and over again to get help, but they just kept turning him down."

Friedman -- who, as he would later learn, suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder -- was not alone.

Veterans of all wars, from World War II to the present, are fighting similar battles to this day against the VA -- now called the Department of Veterans Affairs -- to prove their service and obtain benefits they believe they deserve, and finding out that the VA's records are woefully incomplete.

The John Marshall Law School's Veterans Legal Support Center and Clinic, which works to assist vets with legal and other issues, has lists of former soldiers wrangling with the VA system.

"It's an issue many, many vets have been suffering through for a long time, including recent veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan," said attorney James Garrett.

Garrett had been a lawyer with the firm DLA Piper Global, in San Diego, which has a division that takes on pro bono work assisting veterans. The veteran support clinic emailed him in 2009 appealing for help for Friedman. Garrett said he was stunned to learn that six decades after the war ended, a soldier was still locked in battle.

'Frustrating does not even begin to tell you the truth of the matter'

— Attorney James Garrett, who works on veterans' cases

"I couldn't believe that after all this time, a WWII veteran was still having trouble getting benefits," he exclaimed.

Friedman was 89 years old at that time.

Garrett and his team began making calls, sending letters, searching the Internet, digging through documents and wading through reams of microfilm, just trying to find anything that would prove Friedman's claims.

"Frustrating does not even begin to tell you the truth of the matter. I've found it incredibly unbelievable as a taxpayer the amount of bureaucracy and ineptitude that was occurring, not only in Stanley Friedman's case, but in other cases," Garrett said.

Brian Clauss, who is executive director of the clinic at John Marshall, said missing records are especially a problem for veterans who served before 1973, when a fire destroyed millions of files at the National Personnel Records Center in suburban St. Louis, Mo.

"No duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained, nor were microfilm copies produced," said Clauss. "Neither were any indexes created prior to the fire."

A person would need to be a very good detective to come up with proof of service or experiences.

"It can be particularly cruel -- an elderly veteran has to reconstruct their service record. They're forced to prove their qualifications," Clauss said.

In addition to the fire, Clauss said records may not have been well kept during combat situations, especially if a person was injured and then evacuated. "It is emergency treatment under extreme conditions," he explained. "It is war, people are rushing through the chaos. They don't keep detailed records."

Critics also claim the VA is antiquated and behind the times technologically, and there's still a great deal of material on paper -- and not enough staff to deal with it all.

The VA did not respond to requests from Fox News for comment for this report.

Since Friedman's case came to light, there's been more attention paid to the problem of lost veteran records, but it continues to be a serious issue for many.

Garrett said veterans told him, "Everyone thought we were lying about things we said we had seen and experienced."

One Vietnam veteran, who didn't want his name used, said "the more publicity we get for this problem, the better ... Americans need to know about it."

In 2012, Garrett was able to locate some of Friedman's lost records. And after three more years of legal wrangling with the VA offices, Friedman was finally able to obtain benefits, at the age of 92.

"This validated him. It completely changed our lives," said Minna Rae.

Shown here are Stanley Friedman and his wife, Minna Rae.

Shown here are Stanley Friedman and his wife, Minna Rae. (Family photo)

Once he got benefits, Friedman had greater access to care, which included long-awaited therapy for PTSD.

"We're very fortunate he lived long enough to get verification for his service because many other World War II vets died before that happened," Minna Rae said.

In the final years of his life, Stanley Friedman was eventually able to move to a veterans' residence not far from his suburban Chicago home, called the Green House homes at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center.

He found peace among the caring staff and his fellow veterans.

Friedman died in his sleep there at the age of 94.