CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — Marine Frank Lagana had a bullet wound in his leg and his memory to prove he served in Vietnam, but it was not enough even though his was supported by Department of Defense documentation.
Lagana waited about 30 years before filing a claim “jungle rot”, the bullet wound and diabetes were service related and left him disabled. About a year after he filed, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determined there was no proof Lagana served in Vietnam.
His attorney, Will Sterbinsky said not only did Lagana serve in Vietnam, he turned down an opportunity to stay in the U.S. after first tour, and instead volunteered to return.
“He waved it,” Sterbinsky said. “He wanted to go back.”
Sterbinsky said the evidence also includes a letter to the DOD from Lagana’s mother around 1965 that stated she had not heard from her son.
According to Sterbinsky, the DOD informed her he was with a unit that records showed was in Vietnam around that time of Lagana’s mother’s inquiry.
Sterbinsky also cites a report from a VA examiner that he said indicated Lagana “is a Vietnam Veteran.” Sterbinsky said the examiner stated the diabetes is “more likely than not” related to agent orange exposure.
Sterbinsky claims the VA focused on what he called “inaccurate” discharge paperwork in denying Lagana’s claim.
“I think that it’s easier to deny, deny and let them die than it is to actually pick up the work and do something,” Sterbinsky said.
After Lagana died, Sterbinsky filed a claim for survivor benefits for his widow in 2019.
According to Sterbinsky, the potential smoking gun is a VA Toxic Exposure Risk Activity (TERA) memo dated March 11, 2023.
In a series of marked boxes, the VA employee indicated “during military service” Lagana was exposed to agent orange. The document also states Lagana’s service was verified last year by his “military record.”
Sterbinsky said he found the TERA in Lagana’s online VA file, but then he claims it disappeared.
“[They] found that he did have Vietnam service,” Sterbinsky said. “Within two months, the VA deleted that memo. You cannot find it. We saved it, knowing the VA plays these funny games.”
A VA benefits spokesperson offered to have an agent call and help Lagana’s widow through the process, but privacy rules restricted him from offering specifics of the case.
Sterbinsky insists if the a VA review of its own records would change the outcome.
“It’s very strong evidence and the VA should’ve developed this but they haven’t,” Sterbinsky said. “I’m trying to get somebody. I’m jumping up and down and I can’t get anyone to respond.”
A hearing on the claim is scheduled for November.