PLANT CITY, Fla. (WFLA) — Baldomero Vega never applied for VA benefits since he did not need the help, but after he got cancer later in life, his requests were denied.
Now, time is running out for the 87-year-old.
Vega is hospitalized with the late stages of the disease and has given up on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits that he insists he earned while serving in the Army in the Korean War.
“They are never going to help me,” Vega said through a translator during an interview before he was hospitalized. “They will never take me into account and if they don’t take me into account? Well, I know I served my homeland.”
After that interview, Vega’s stepson Greg Taylor helped him walk to his bed.
“Just lay down and rest,” Taylor told him as he pulled a blanket over Vega’s frail body.
Vega has been waiting years for at least recognition of his claim that he not only served but was shot in the calf right before falling and suffering a traumatic brain injury.
A medical opinion that “Vega’s PTSD was directly caused by his experience while serving in the U.S. Army” was not enough to convince the VA. But the rating decision document that followed holds a clue to Vega’s service, according to Taylor and Vega.
Taylor, who has helped his step-father file the VA paperwork, said Vega did not even remember the year he served seven decades ago.
The VA rating decision included the precise dates of Oct. 15, 1953, to March 15, 1955, as well as “Honorable” under the column for “Character of Discharge.”
A VA spokesperson claims Vega provided the information, but Vega and Taylor deny that.
“No,” Vega said when asked if he provided the dates.
Taylor was more blunt.
“I just don’t understand why they would blatantly lie and say that we provided something that we did not provide,” Taylor said. “Don’t those dates given by [the VA] mean they know something about him serving?”
VA Public Affairs Officer Gary Kunich did not answer a question about the plausibility that a man of Vega’s age would remember his exact dates of service. He did say the case is not closed yet.
“As we have relayed before, if Mr. Vega can provide a service number, we can further investigate,” Kunich said in an email. “VA Benefits Administration has asked Mr. Vega to provide this information, however, we still have not received it.”
Vega now just wants some sort of recognition that he put his life on the line while serving in the Army for a country he said he would fight for again.
“If I could, yes,” Kunich said through a translator. “Because my country is my nation and my homeland.”
Taylor calls it heartbreaking.
“You love your country enough and you go out there and fight and he almost lost his life,” Taylor said. “And yet now your country’s denying you. That’s got to be one of the most hurtful things in the world. He just wants recognition of his service.”
Taylor said he was told key records needed to connect Vega’s medical issues with his service were burned in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
The fire destroyed 80% percent of the documents for Army personnel discharged from Nov. 1, 1912, to Jan. 1, 1960, according to the U.S. Archives website.
“No duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained, nor were microfilm copies produced,” the website states.
The missing service number is also related to finding out what happened to the VA’s copies of the documents.
Kunich said the VA is “unable to determine if Mr. Vega’s records” were destroyed in the fire without a service number.