HOLIDAY, Fla. (WFLA) – Private sector doctors found what local Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors refused to even look for, according to Lonnie Kilpatrick’s family.
As he fought that battle, the VA also denied the Navy veteran’s claim his ailments were connected to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.
Four years of back pain was diagnosed as arthritis and a disc injury by Bay Pines VA Medical Center doctors, records show.
But Kilpatrick and his family feared a connection between the pain and a cancerous tumor that was treated in 2014.
“The guy told me I was cancer free,” Kilpatrick said in 2018, referring to a VA clinician.
The Kilpatrick’s suspicion was backed up by a second opinion from a Tarpon Springs doctor.
“I went from having osteoarthritis,” Kilpatrick said in tears. “To having metastasized bone cancer all over my body. How the hell do they do that?”
Four months after that interview with 8 On Your Side’s Steve Andrews, Kilpatrick died.
He held on just long enough to find out the VA granted his exposure claim and would later provide back payments for the missed benefits.
“And I know that he hung on for as long as he could,” his widow Shiela said.
Seconds before his last breath, she kissed him goodnight.
“He was my first kiss because I started dating him when I was 15,” she said. “And he was my last kiss.”
Now, her first love is the namesake of the Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Herbicide Relief Act that was filed Thursday by Democratic Rep. Michael San Nicolas of Guam and Tampa Bay Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis.
If passed the measure would expand disability benefits for veterans who were exposed to toxic herbicides by allowing presumptions of service-connection for anyone who served on, or in the waters of, Guam and American Samoa between January 9, 1962 and July 31, 1980.
Coverage would also be extended to veterans stationed on the Johnston Atoll or on a ship that called at that port between January 1, 1972 and September 30, 1977.
Sheila Kilpatrick was part of a Zoom news conference, with Bilirakis acknowledging how unfair the current process is for veterans exposed to toxins.
“They spent years waiting for their benefits and medical treatment they’ve earned,” Bilirakis said. “Many have died waiting.”
Kilpatrick hopes her family’s ordeal and her husband’s name will help push the bill forward.
“I’m sure there’s people dying for the reason Lonnie did because they just won’t listen to you,” she said. “They don’t listen to you. I say never give up.”
Andrews pointed out among Lonnie Kilpatrick’s final words included the phrase, “Make it count,” which has become a rallying cry for the legislation that now has his name on it.