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Dose of Reality

Colorado veterans pay for their injuries



Steve Mungie was shot, wounded by a missile, and poisoned repeatedly while serving his country.

Having joined the Navy fresh out of high school in Alameda, Calif., Mungie was sent to Vietnam in 1968. In August that year, he took a bullet in the head while serving as a seaman aboard a patrol boat on the Ham Luong River.

"There's nothing more scary than to look down and find blood running down your face," said Mungie, who lives in Divide.

He wasn't out of the action for long. "They stitched me up, gave me 10 days off, and sent me back."

Just weeks later a missile hit his boat but didn't explode. Mungie picked it up and threw it in the river. "Then it exploded," he says. "All I remember is waking up in a hospital in Japan."

His worst injuries, however, were inflicted by an enemy he didn't even know about -- Agent Orange. On at least six occasions, he was doused with the chemical defoliant, which U.S. airplanes sprayed over Vietnam's dense jungles to deprive the enemy of cover.

"It came down off these planes in a real fine mist, and it sticks to you like oil," Mungie recalled. He and his fellow crewmembers would jump in the river and wash it off.

Get a buck, give a buck

Today, Mungie is 100 percent disabled and diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure, which he says was caused by the exposure to Agent Orange. He also suffers from asthma, diabetes and the neurological disease myasthenia gravis, all of which he attributes to the chemical.

Mungie figures the least he deserves for his troubles is to receive his full military retirement and disability pay. After all, President George W. Bush and members of Congress have been urging the country to "support our troops" in this time of war.

But the support, Mungie learned the hard way, goes only so far. After he first began experiencing symptoms of his illnesses in 1986, he had to fight the bureaucracy for a decade and hire a lawyer before the Department of Veterans Affairs would acknowledge the connection between his illnesses and his exposure to Agent Orange.

And when the VA finally recognized him as a disabled veteran, he discovered something that the recruiting officers had never told him back in Alameda: Under a federal law dating from 1891, veterans are barred from receiving both full retirement pay and disability pay at the same time. For each dollar he would receive in disability pay, Mungie found out, the government would deduct a dollar from his retirement check.

Mungie is Colorado coordinator of the Veterans Voting Bloc, a group that fights for veterans' benefits. High on the group's agenda is to persuade Congress to give veterans concurrent pay of both retirement and disability benefits.

Many in Congress support concurrent pay, but the Bush administration argues it's too expensive and blocked a proposed concurrent-pay bill introduced last year.

The bill has been reintroduced this year, and four of Colorado's seven members of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors, including Republican Reps. Tom Tancredo and Bob Beauprez and Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette and Mark Udall. Colorado's three other members of Congress, Republicans Marilyn Musgrave, Scott McInnis and Joel Hefley declined to support the measure. Hefley, who represents Colorado Springs, also failed to co-sponsor last year's bill.

"He doesn't care," said Mungie, who has tried to win Hefley's support. "He doesn't even talk to veterans."

Now, it appears veterans' benefits will take a step backward rather than forward, as Congress is considering cutting billions of dollars from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rep. DeGette of Denver, who opposes the cuts, says thousands of Colorado vets could lose their health care, and thousands more could be forced to pay increased fees for care.

In Colorado Springs alone, those potentially affected include 5,000 veterans enrolled at the local VA Clinic, says Randall Emeterio, a VA spokesman in Denver.

The VA already has waiting lists for veterans seeking health care; 1,800 vets are on the list in Colorado Springs.

"We don't have the resources right now to take of everybody," Emeterio said. "With a favorable budget, our No. 1 priority would be to eliminate the waiting list."

Meanwhile, Congressman Hefley-- who has a policy of not speaking with the Independent -- has issued no official statements opposing the budget cuts. He did, however, issue a press release earlier this month suggesting ways for Americans to "express their support for our troops and help military families in meaningful ways." The suggestions include sending care packages and e-mail messages of support via "Operation Dear Abby."

Hank Cole, the Colorado director of the advocacy group Uniformed Services Disabled Retirees, says the double talk of politicians who claim to support troops while slashing benefits hasn't gone unnoticed by veterans.

"There's a lot of resentment coming from a lot of veterans," said Cole, an Army vet who was injured by a grenade in Vietnam in 1965. "We don't want any more damn monuments. We don't want any more 'grateful nation' crap. What we want is some decent health care, and fairness."

-- Terje Langeland

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