SEMINOLE, Fla. (WFLA) – Agent Orange does not appear ominous in grainy, 50-year-old film but Richard Romo recalls being covered in the syrupy poison used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam.
Romo, 76, of Seminole, and his fight for benefits was examined in a November investigation by 8 On Your Side. He said as a 20-year-old he had no idea the damage the toxic shower would cause when he got older.
“None of us knew what it was,” Romo said.
His war stories start with the first of his three tours when a concussion grenade exploded near him, according to his nephew Jon Whiteside.
“Both of his ears were bleeding, and they told him, ‘you’ll be alright, you’ll get over it. Everybody gets it,’ ” Whiteside said. “And they sent him back out.”
Whiteside, now one of Romo’s caretakers, said his uncle’s hearing was never the same.
Romo also has seven stents in his heart from Agent Orange related heart disease, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, tinnitus and bullet wounds.
“Three times,” he said when asked how many times he was hit by enemy gunfire. “Three times.”
The scars of war led to Romo being homeless. He was one of those veterans you see on the street “off and on” for about a decade until Whiteside and niece took him in.
Then after he finally applied for benefits about four years ago with Whiteside’s help, Romo was repeatedly denied by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
8 On Your Side asked the local congressional delegation to get involved, alerted the VA to Romo’s stalled benefits and exposed the issues in a November report.
Whiteside said an official with the Whitehouse Veterans Benefits Administration reached out a short time later.
“The next day,” Whiteside said. “The next day. Thanks to News Channel 8. This would have never happened [without your help.] I guarantee it.”
Years of monthly back benefits were paid about a week later.
“Yes,” Romo said softly, when asked if he was surprised by how quickly the benefits came. “Yes, I was. So fast.”
Romo is thankful the VA finally listened, but he said his new monthly benefits are not nearly enough to live on. Whiteside said his uncle would potentially be homeless again if he was not living with him and his wife.
“This just shouldn’t happen,” Whiteside said. “These veterans should get what they earned. They should have to verify it. I agree with that. But if they earned [the benefits], they should get them.”
Documents we reviewed show the VA considers Romo 50% disabled. Now, he and his nephew are trying to prove what they insist the VA is missing about the claim.
“The severity of his ailments. The severity of his PTSD,” Whiteside said. “The severity of his coronary artery disease.”
An increase in the percentage of disability would also increase Romo’s monthly check,” Whiteside said.
Romo has resubmitted information after the most recent two stents were placed in his arteries last month. He and Whiteside remain hopeful the VA will see he is more than 50% disabled.
Rome said he has no plans on giving up on what he “earned.”
“No,” he said. “Not at all.”
The VA does not comment on specific cases, but a spokesman said the agency is in the process of hiring 2,000 more employees to cut through the backlog of claims and appeals.