Charles Patrick Mahoney remembers his brush with death on Sept. 18, 1950, like it was yesterday.
He will never forget the hell that followed and the six decades he spent trying to figure out why he was different.
An athletic 18-year-old with curly auburn hair, he was a fair-skinned Army private from Terre Haute, Ind., armed with a .30-caliber carbine. His job was to run messages between platoons and command posts in the early months of the Korean War.
His unit, Charlie Company, 5th Regiment, of the 1st Cavalry Division, was fighting for a hill as the regiment moved north from the Naktong River. They were making ground until North Korean forces unleashed a barrage of heavy mortar fire.
"It sounded like a freight train coming out of the sky," the 79-year-old, barrel-chested man said this month at his Las Vegas apartment.
When a round exploded beside him, the blast heaved him 15 feet into the air. Shrapnel sliced through his left hand. The world around him went silent.
"I was dazed but not unconscious," he recalled.
After medics came and wrapped his hand, he was hauled to a field hospital and eventually flown on a C-47 transport plane to the 118th Station Hospital at Fukuoka, Japan.
There his hand began to heal and the ringing in his ears gradually receded.
But the flashbacks of war crescendoed.
He couldn't erase the putrid odor of two dozen bodies of U.S. soldiers rotting - "the worst smell in my life" - as Charlie Company approached Hill 517 at the onset of the Battle of Pusan Perimeter.
Nor could he erase the sight of his carbine's muzzle flashing as he fired at the enemy across a 500-yard-wide flat along the Naktong. In all, 770 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division died during the battle, the first large-scale offensive by U.N. troops to keep North Korean soldiers and later communist Chinese regulars from advancing farther south in the Republic of Korea.
"I killed people and they tried to kill me," Mahoney said.
While the explosion on Sept. 18, 1950, marked the end of his combat experience, it was really the beginning of a battle he would fight 60 years later with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mahoney won the first and second rounds in 2010 to secure a 100 percent disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder, compensation of nearly $3,000 per month retroactive to December 2009.
But he lost this year on March 2 when the Board of Veterans' Appeals in Washington, D.C., denied his attempt to collect decades worth of back pay for his permanent, service-connected psychiatric disability that Army doctors had previously diagnosed as schizophrenia.
"They never told me I was crazy," Mahoney said. "It's not about the money. I want justice."
At the Fukuoka hospital, the private was deemed unfit to return to the front lines because his wounds of war, both the visible and invisible ones, would take too long to heal.
It was the beginning of an odyssey that would take him to psychiatric wards in the United States.
First he was put in a naval hospital at Corpus Christi, Texas. Then, he returned to active duty at the 1st Cavalry Division's home post, Fort Hood, near Killeen, Texas. While in an open psychiatric ward there, Mahoney experienced his first bout of malaria that he had contracted in Korea. His temperature soared to 104 degrees; then he'd become delirious and shiver with chills.
He returned to duty after a few months at Fort Hood, but things didn't go well. He was taken to a closed psychiatric ward, put in a straitjacket, locked in a padded room and given shock treatments for four months, he said.
He doesn't remember much about that experience. However, his VA records show that on March 20, 1952, he went before a physical examination board where doctors determined that he was 100 percent permanently disabled from service-connected schizophrenia, described as "dementia praecox, paranoid," or in other words "precocious madness."
Mahoney also was found to be 30 percent disabled from malaria and suffered smaller disabilities from hearing loss and his hand wound.
The board recommended that he be discharged and put in a VA hospital. The words typed in Block 33 of the form about his "mental incompetent state," read: "Further hospitalization will be required in a Veterans Administration Hospital."
But that never happened.
Instead, Mahoney was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and put in the psychiatric ward at Brooke Army Medical Center. He slept on a cot in a barracks that he shared with 30 other guys. They were locked behind barred doors except when they were allowed in a courtyard surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire.
"It was a prison," he said, reflecting on his discharge that finally came on Aug. 7, 1952. "I said, 'Thank God I'm getting out of here.'
"But they never made me aware of absolutely anything. They never made me aware I could file for malaria (compensation), and I didn't know I had a mental condition. I thought they cured me at Fort Hood with the shock treatments."
Back in Indiana, Mahoney had a tough time adjusting to civilian life. He didn't understand why he couldn't hold jobs with direct supervision.
Three months after his honorable discharge, he was hired by a printing company in Terre Haute only to be fired a short time later.
"They said I talked too much and had a bad attitude," he said.
He was miffed because managers had given his chance for a union job to someone with less seniority.
So he tried to make it as a salesman, selling Fuller Brush products door-to-door. That worked for a while but he still got agitated if he had to deal with the front office too often.
In 1955, with help from the Disabled American Veterans, he began receiving a small amount of compensation from the VA for his hand wound.
Two years later, he found a woman who could tolerate his mood swings and married the love of his life, Mary Hooker.
Their life together was peaceful for the most part, he said, until once when his screams in the middle of the night woke her up.
"She said, 'What are you doing? You're screaming,' " Mahoney recalled.
"I said, 'I don't do that.' And she said, 'Yes you do.' After that when it would happen again, she'd just wake me up and say I was snoring," Mahoney recalled.
There were times when stresses from war would erupt in unbearable pain.
"I felt like there was a thousand needles sticking in my body and I had to run a half mile to get rid of it," he said.
On top of that, malaria symptoms continued for 13 years after his discharge.
After losing interest in door-to-door sales jobs, he decided to go into business on his own. They moved to Michigan where he opened a sewing machine and vacuum cleaner repair shop in Jackson in 1984. Their marriage lasted 45 years until Mary died in 2002.
About five years later he met a woman who persuaded him to move to Las Vegas, but the relationship lasted only three months.
BATTLING THE VA
During a visit to a VA clinic in Las Vegas for his hearing loss in 2009, a social worker suggested he submit a claim for post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA's regional office in Reno at first awarded him 50 percent disability for PTSD, with bipolar II disorder and "hypomanic previously evaluated as schizophrenia, unspecified," according to the regional office's first decision.
In an appeal in August 2010, his PTSD rating was upgraded to 100 percent, retroactive to Nov. 18, 2009. His hearing loss rating was also upgraded from 20 percent to 50 percent, effective March 10, 2010.
Mahoney wasn't satisfied, though, and presented a case to the national Board of Veterans' Appeals for compensation for his service-connected mental condition that existed prior to Nov. 18, 2009.
While his case was pending, Mahoney became puzzled about the VA's reference to schizophrenia from records he didn't have.
In January, he sought his Army records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. He also wanted a copy of his discharge papers to verify five awards he had earned, including the Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
On March 2, the Board of Veterans' Appeals denied his claim for psychiatric disability prior to Nov. 18, 2009, when he first sought compensation for PTSD. The reason, according to the decision by Veterans Law Judge Keith W. Allen, was that Mahoney didn't file a claim for his mental disorder after he was discharged in 1952.
"There wasn't even a set of words put together in 1952 that said 'post-traumatic stress disorder,' " Mahoney said Wednesday.
Three weeks later, on March 31, his Army records arrived in the mail with a letter and copies of his 1952 discharge papers and medical evaluation that had been singed in a fire.
"The military record needed to answer your inquiry was located in the area that suffered the most damage in the fire that occurred at this Center on July 12, 1973," the letter begins. "Fortunately a portion of the record was among those recovered, however, it was damaged in the fire."
Although charred on their right edges, the papers revealed what the Army and the VA had known for decades: that Mahoney had been diagnosed with permanent mental disability but had never been told about it, or informed that he could file a claim to receive compensation for it.
"I was worse than furious," Mahoney said. "All the money in the world is not worth the 60 years I spent not knowing what was wrong with me. I couldn't make friends. I couldn't hold a job. I want them to apologize to me."
On Thursday, Rusty Neal, a spokesman for the VA regional office in Reno, said neither he nor other VA officials could comment on Mahoney's case without a privacy waiver signed by the veteran.
Neal said the general rule for granting claims is restricted to the date of the claim unless the veteran has a record that shows the condition was documented within a year before the official date of the claim.
"If somebody is unaware of a particular condition, we're still restricted by the date of the claim they actually filed," Neal said.
The VA spokesman's comment came shortly after the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it was increasing its staff of mental health workers by roughly 1,900 to augment its existing mental health staff of 20,590.
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the announcement is a good start but that the VA needs to increase training of its workers who deal with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mahoney said he wants the VA to change its policy on handling claims like his so that veterans have a fair chance of recovering the compensation to which they are entitled instead of being denied on technicalities.
"They knew I had a mental disorder and it was permanent. They ruined 60 years of my life," he said. "If you sympathize with me and other vets in situations like this, write the VA Board of Veterans' Appeals in Washington, D.C., 20420."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.