LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) Baldomero Vega recalls going to war in Korea a few months after he turned 18 and getting shot in the leg moments before falling backward on his head.
He said he was in a coma for about two months but proving it to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is taking a lifetime.
The Lakeland resident is nearly 90 and still fighting the VA for help with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), headaches and nightmares that he said have persisted since he was discharged in the Spring of 1955.
Even with the struggle, the 87-year-old said he would serve again if he could.
“I love my country,” Vega said. “And yes, I [would] fight for her. If I was able to go back again, I sure will.”
His stepson Gregory Taylor has been helping him file and refile documents to prove he qualifies for basic medical care from the VA and potentially disability benefits.
“He feels like he loved his country, but his country didn’t love him,” Taylor said. “We started this almost 10 years ago and [the VA] said at times they would expedite it but that was years ago.”
In a VA rating decision, the agency stated the gunshot wound is “Not Service Connected.”
At other times, according to Taylor, Vega’s actual service was even questioned despite a VA document that lists his dates of service in the Army and his Honorable Discharge.
“We got the dates from them and turned it back into them and yet they’re questioning the dates,” Taylor said. “I mean we got it from them so basically it seems like they’re questioning themselves.
The VA would not comment on the specifics of the claims filed by Vega who has since submitted paperwork to allow the agency to discuss the case with 8 on Your Side.
Vega also claims that he dealt with racism during the war and now he is suspicious the years of denials are connected to that same “injustice.”
“He 100% believes that because he said he endured it while he was in there. Trying to defend the country and calling you every name you know that you could imagine,” Taylor said. “He feels like it’s why they never helped him before and why they won’t help him now.”
Vega went to a civilian psychiatrist who wrote in an evaluation, “Mr. Vega’s PTSD was directly caused by his experiences while serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.”
The doctor also said Vega’s explanation and medical treatment history are consistent with a history of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) “caused by his head being struck after he was shot and fell during combat.”
But he was still denied.
“It’s sad to say but it’s like they were waiting for him to pass away and that’s terrible,” Taylor said. “Because of his age and serious medical conditions. He has cancer now and he’s 87. He’s had 23 surgeries too.”
When Vega was asked if he thought his was a case of “delay, deny until you die,” he nodded his head.
“I think so,” he said. “Yeah.”
“I don’t know if they don’t believe it or they’re just turning a blind eye to it,” Taylor said. “He’s been slapped in the face every time he tried to get help.”
Taylor said he suspects key records needed to connect Vega’s medical issues with his service were burned in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
The fire destroyed 80% percent of the records for Army personnel discharged from Nov. 1, 1912 to Jan. 1, 1960, according to the U.S. Archives website. The website states 75% of Air Force personnel were discharged from Sept. 25, 1947, to Jan. 1, 1964, with names alphabetically after James E. Hubbard.
“No duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained, nor were microfilm copies produced,” the website states.