SEMINOLE, Fla. (WFLA) – Richard Romo enlisted in the Marines as a teenager and served three tours in Vietnam, but more than five decades later, he is asking why benefits he thought he earned have been repeatedly denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Romo, 76, of Seminole, was shot three times during his service that included an honorable discharge after the first tour before he reupped and served two more tours in civil war-torn Southeast Asia.
“I was shot at probably every day,” Romo said.
Three of those bullets hit the mark, but Romo remained in action.
“When I came back, home didn’t seem like home anymore,” Romo said.
Romo said he lived with guilt about surviving battles that killed his friends, and that created several other issues in his life – including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“You’re like a family. Then, when you see them die,” Romo said, “it’s just hard.”
The second enlistment involved a commanding officer who, according to Romo, “picked on” him and called him racial slurs.
That stint ended with an undesirable discharge. But in 1977, President Jimmy Carter authorized upgrading more than 400,000 discharges given to Vietnam veterans for a number of charges.
Romo said he does not recall what reason was given for his second discharge.
His nephew Jon Whiteside spearheaded the request for monthly disability benefits, starting about two years ago, and he was able to convince the VA to grant a service connection to PTSD. But medical issues tied to defoliant agent orange exposure were denied, even though Romo said he was sprayed with the poison several times.
“We didn’t know what it was, but I wonder if they were trying to kill us,” Romo said. “It was sticky, and it had a smell like – I don’t know. I can’t explain that smell.”
While the PTSD service connection was granted, the VA told Romo “compensation is not payable for this condition.”
Whiteside suspects that decision is connected to the second discharge, even though it was upgraded by President Carter.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Whiteside said. “It’s just unbelievable the United States government, the Department of Veterans Affairs, lets this happen to these guys.”
In May, great news came in a voice mail from Congressman Charlie Crist’s office.
“The VA has reversed their decision on his disability,” Whiteside recalled the message saying.
But that optimism devolved into nothing but more waiting and no answers or timeline.
“It looks like something that’s never going to end,” Romo said. “I keep asking myself, why?”
Crist said his office has filed an appeal with the VA for Romo.
“It’s incredibly frustrating. It would be for anybody,” Crist said. “To see the pain and the anguish people go through, and they served our country. It’s unconscionable. That’s why we’re trying to do everything we can to help him.”
Emails to the VA about Romo’s case and benefit denials connected to certain types of discharges have not been returned yet.
Romo, who said he was awarded several medals – including three Purple Hearts, the Silver Star and Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, has no intention of giving up his fight.
“It’s just something that I feel I deserve and lots of veterans deserve it more,” Romo said.