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WWII vet ‘stunned’ by VA’s speed after column on disability claim: Brown

Joseph Groner uniform

Joseph Groner in uniform

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Updated: November 24, 2013 6:40AM

World War II veteran Joseph Groner’s frustrating dance with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is finally finished, and the best part is Groner is still standing.

On the same day my column appeared last week about Groner’s six-year effort to collect on his VA disability claim being delayed once again by the government shutdown, Groner got a call at home.

Someone identifying himself as a VA official told Groner the agency was processing his back pay that very day and would send the money just as soon as he supplied his bank account information, which in his excitement he gladly did.

After some ensuing panic in which Groner’s daughter froze the funds in his account and reminded her 89-year-old father to NEVER give out confidential banking info over the phone, Groner’s lawyer Frank Del Barto called to confirm the good news.

At about the time Groner was hearing from the VA, Del Barto had received a call from Sen. Mark Kirk’s office to inform him it had forwarded my column to the VA that morning and received assurances Groner’s problem would be fixed immediately.

Groner got all the reassurance he needed when a transfer of $177,122 showed up days later in his bank account, reflecting the back pay he was owed by the federal government since he filed his claim in 2007.

“I was stunned,” said Groner, who hadn’t been expecting nearly as much and feared the VA was deliberately waiting until he was dead to send the money after an appeals board ruled in his favor in August.

“I don’t think anything would have happened if it hadn’t been for your article. Boy, did they move! The power of the press,” Groner told me Tuesday by phone from his home in Lincolnshire.

While I was only too happy to think I might have helped Groner get his money, I was frankly doubtful. The power of the press isn’t what it used to be, and it seemed more likely to be happenstance — that the column appeared just as the VA was ready to cut the check.

Del Barto, the lawyer who handled the case for no charge as a referral from the Veterans Legal Support Center & Clinic at John Marshall Law School, set me straight.

To this moment, Del Barto said, Groner has yet to receive any of the official paperwork from the VA that determines the level of his disability and sets his pay. In other words, the VA moved so fast on this, they went straight to sending him the money, which is a pretty good indication they were feeling some heat.

“Very clearly somebody pulled his file out from the bottom of a pile on somebody’s desk,” Del Barto said.

Groner also should now begin receiving a monthly disability check of $2,973 from the VA, the lawyer said.

The award stems from health conditions an expert determined were likely caused by Groner’s exposure to radiation while serving in the Army as a fill-in X-ray technician aboard the Hospital Ship Marigold.

After the ship arrived in Japan at war’s end, Groner performed thousands of X-rays, mostly of newly liberated Allied prisoners of war. He had received no training for the assignment and therefore did not know to take steps to shield himself from the radiation produced by the X-ray machine.

About 20 years ago, Groner developed lesions and was eventually diagnosed with lymphomatoid papulosis and later anaplastic large T-cell lymphoma.

Whether I helped finally break the VA logjam or not, the real credit belongs to the dogged work of Del Barto, who makes representing veterans without charge a sideline of his legal practice.

“If I could find a way to do this for a living, I would,” Del Barto said. “I’m fortunate the firm allows me to do it. I’ve got three other veterans I need to work on now.”

Groner also credits the students at the John Marshall veterans clinic who did the initial screening work on his case and recognized it merited bringing in Del Barto.

“All I can say to you is: Don’t give up on these vets. They need it so badly. These young guys that are coming home, no matter what is being done for them, it’s not enough,” Groner challenged me.

When his health allows, Groner still volunteers once a month at the VA hospital. That says it all.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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