In a time when the Vietnam War was raging, and many Americans were taking out their anger on the fighters rather than the war, it would have been easy to stay home.
But Frank Lagana was a faithful Marine who didn’t shy away from a fight.
Decades later, when he reached out to the VA to cover illnesses related to his service, he was met with a shocking response – there was no record of him having served.
His bullet wound begged to differ.
Veteran made to prove service in Vietnam
Thirty years ago, Lagana was shot in the leg while serving as a Marine in Vietnam.
The injury festered for years and, three decades later, Lagana filed a claim with the VA saying his “jungle rot,” a chronic ulcerative skin lesion caused by an infection, and his diabetes were related to his service during the war.
It took a year for the VA to get back to Lagana. When they finally did, the agency denied his claim, saying they found no proof Lagana had ever served in Vietnam.
According to Tampa Bay’s WFLA, Lagana served two tours in Vietnam, volunteering for the second stint even though he could have stayed stateside.
Lagana’s lawyer, Will Sterbinsky, produced a letter from the mid-1960s in which the Department of Defense told Lagana’s mother her son was serving in Vietnam. Sterbinsky also provided a report from a VA examiner that said Lagana “is a Vietnam Veteran” and concluded Lagana diabetes was “more likely than not” related to agent orange exposure.
VA relied on inaccurate discharge paperwork to deny benefits
Sterbinsky said the VA used “inaccurate” discharge paperwork to deny Lagana’s health claim.
“I think that it’s easier to deny, deny and let them die than it is to actually pick up the work and do something,” Sterbinsky said.
After Lagana’s death, Sterbinsky helped his widow apply for survivor benefits.
Lagana’s widow and lawyer are still fighting. Sterbinsky found a VA Toxic Exposure Risk Activity memo from March 2023 in which a VA employee indicated that, “during military service,” Lagana was exposed to agent orange. That document also states Lagana’s service was verified by his “military record.”
Sterbinsky alleges the VA has now deleted that memo since he can no longer find it online. (Sterbinsky still has a downloaded copy of the document.)
“[They] found that he did have Vietnam service,” Sterbinsky said. “Within two months, the VA deleted that memo. You cannot find it. We saved it, knowing the VA plays these funny games.”
VA consistently lets veterans down
The VA has a long track record of letting veterans down, both on the disability benefits side, and the health care side.
Whether putting in unnecessary extra work to even be recognized as combat veterans or facing improper denials of community care referrals outside of the VA in spite of Congress mandating these options, thousands of veterans struggle with the failures of VA bureaucracy every year.
Both of these barriers to care speak to the broader issue of VA putting itself first over the good of the veterans it serves.
Veterans deserve better access to care and benefits. Read more stories about VA’s failures and how they show it is past time the VA be held accountable.