Veteran, 92, wins disability pay
The war gave him flashbacks and nightmares. He flailed around in his sleep, bruising his arms. Memories of being bombed and rocketed seemed real, and painfully intense.
Tech Sgt. Stanley Friedman was ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the signature disability from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A few weeks ago, Friedman received his first 70% disability check for PTSD from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It wasn’t for service in Iraq or Afghanistan. It was for World War II. Stanley Friedman is 92.
After fighting the VA for years, Friedman got help from lawyers, who logged hundreds of hours digging up evidence not only of his World War II service but of his debilitating PTSD. The VA finally accepted their documentation, and now Friedman is being compensated for what was called shell shock or battle fatigue when he served nearly 70 years ago.
“It’s like a miracle,” Friedman said last week from his home outside Chicago, his mind still sharp and his voice heavy with the Brooklyn accent of his youth.
Friedman is hardly the only World War II veteran to receive benefits because of PTSD, but his long path to approval is unusual and noteworthy for the time and effort involved. About 19,000 World War II veterans receive such benefits, the VA says (compared with 115,000 Iraq, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf War veterans). But most of those World War II veterans had an easier time of it because many, unlike Friedman, held on to their service and medical records.
For years, Minna Rae Friedman suffered through her husband’s nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and refusal to discuss the war. It came to a head a dozen years ago, she said, when his grandson interviewed Friedman for a school project on World War II.
The boy asked: “Tell me the truth, Grandpa. Were you scared?”
The old man replied: “I was scared to death.” Actually, he used a more pungent description, his wife recalled.
“That’s when it all really started to come out,” she said.
A VA doctor diagnosed Friedman’s PTSD in 2001. In 2004, Friedman applied for disability benefits but was denied; he could prove neither his combat service nor his disability. His 1946 application for disability benefits for a back injury and sand fly fever he suffered in North Africa was rejected for similar reasons.
In 2009, the San Diego office of the law firm DLA Piper heard about Friedman’s case from a law school in Chicago. Lawyer James Garrett, and later Veronica Jackson and Oksana Koltko, searched for documentation as part of the firm’s pro bono work for veterans.
It would take them at least 350 work hours over more than two years. They scoured old newspapers and mountains of reproduced microfilm records supplied by the military. They also interviewed Friedman’s doctors, his wife and his children to obtain formal declarations about his PTSD symptoms.
“I felt like a detective,” Jackson said.
After months of searching Army records that turned up nothing about Friedman, Garrett realized that, because Friedman served in what was then the Army Air Corps, his records were kept by the Air Force. He pawed through Air Force microfilm and finally found a handwritten diary entry from an American captain in Tunisia in 1943 describing a certain “Sgt. Friedman.”
From that clue, Garrett was able to establish Friedman’s service in North Africa from 1943 to 1945 and the name of his ordnance maintenance company. Other documents verified that Friedman’s troop ship was torpedoed and dive-bombed en route to Tunisia in 1943, and that members of his unit were killed in an attack on a truck in Tunisia in 1944.
The terror of being attacked on the ship, and of stumbling across a buddy’s corpse after the truck attack, clung to Friedman for years. He would keep his TV turned on late at night, he said, so he wouldn’t fall asleep and revisit recurring nightmares.
“You’re always in fear for your life,” he said of the war memories that haunted him.
His flashbacks terrified him and left him in a constant state of dread. He became depressed, anxious and uncommunicative, his wife said. Friedman had managed to work for years as a salesman for an aluminum foil company, but over the past decade he became increasingly debilitated by PTSD.
One box of documentation the lawyers sent to the VA in February 2010 weighed in at 800 pages. A year later, the VA accepted the documentation and granted Friedman a 50% disability rating. The lawyers believed he deserved more, and they filed added documentation requesting a 70% rating.
In April, the VA agreed. The first check at the higher rating arrived that month.
“I never, ever thought we’d get to where we are today,” Minna Rae Friedman said. Until a few years ago, she said, she “never knew anything about PTSD.”
“This is wonderful,” she said. “It validates all Stanley has gone through.”
Said Stanley: “It’s a marvelous thing they did for me.”
Garrett, who worked for the Peace Corps and as a firefighter before becoming a lawyer, said, “It’s just about the most significant thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Because the VA handles hundreds of thousands of cases and World War II records are difficult to trace, Jackson said, Friedman’s case was a remarkable example of patience by a man in his ninth decade. And it was immensely gratifying to help him persevere.
“It makes you proud to be a lawyer,” she said.
Friedman now makes regular visits from his home in Lake Bluff, Ill., to a VA facility in Chicago. He’s part of a PTSD therapy group that includes a few veterans from World War II and Vietnam, and younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. His doctor provides regular PTSD treatment.
All that, and the successful conclusion of his decades-long battle for benefits, is bringing him out of his PTSD-induced depression.
“It’s made a new man out of me,” Friedman said.