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Vegas Navy Cross recipient shot down by VA benefits office

Vietnam War veteran Steve Lowery has the scars, the medals and his Marine Corps medical records to prove he was wounded when his 12-man reconnaissance team was attacked on March 5, 1969.

“We were nearly wiped out and overcome,” said the Las Vegas resident, recounting the firefight in the darkness atop Hill 1308 that left three of his buddies dead and seven wounded including him.

One who was killed, Pfc. Robert H. Jenkins Jr., was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving Fred Ostrom’s life by shielding him from an exploding grenade. Others received Silver and Bronze Stars for their bravery.

Lowery, the team leader and a 1964 graduate of Rancho High School, was awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest valor award.

That makes him among the most highly decorated veterans from Las Vegas, but he doesn’t expect to be treated any differently than other veterans who have served their country honorably.

“I wear this on behalf of the other 11 who were with me,” he said last week about the Navy Cross, which has a citation that reads: “For extraordinary heroism … Corporal Lowery was seriously wounded in both legs by the intense enemy fire.

“Steadfastly remaining in his hazardous position, he boldly delivered accurate return fire and hurled grenades at the advancing enemy … killing several of the enemy and causing the others to retreat.”

Yet in the eyes of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the bullet from an AK-47 that ripped through his thighs and shrapnel from a “Chi-Com” — Chinese Communist — grenade that pierced his right knee were not related to his military service.

Nor was the neck injury he suffered near the end of his career when a moving van rear-ended his car when he was stopped at a light while on active duty in Hawaii.

That’s what the letter says from the VA Benefits Regional Office in Reno that rejected his claim for service-connected compensation.

“We determined that the following condition is not related to your military service,” reads the Aug. 1, 2011, letter from “A. Bittler,” veterans service center manager. “Gunshot wound to left thigh; neck condition; shrapnel, right knee; gunshot wound, right thigh.”

DEFYING LOGIC

Lowery said he wonders how VA officials can sign a letter that defies the obvious facts, but they did nothing to find out why.

“It’s absolutely stunning that you have a health record that has complete documentation that this person was injured during his third year of 27 years of service (and) it was verified and corroborated every time they looked at me for the following 24 years, and on the date I get out.

“And then he makes a statement like, ‘Your shrapnel wounds and gunshot wounds are not service connected.’ It was like that would have been something out of Mad magazine or a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit,” Lowery said.

“I know plenty of people who have received good fine service from them as they ought to. But that ought to happen in every case. And those where it doesn’t happen, we ought to pursue it and take action against administrators and individuals who through either negligence or neglect have abused their authority and haven’t carried out their duties.”

So Thursday, after more than two years of agonizing and writing rant letters he never mailed, Lowery asked U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, to help him unravel the mystery about his case.

On Friday, Heller’s spokesman, Neal Patel, acknowledged the process has begun.

Also on Friday, a spokesman for the VA Reno benefits office said its staff intends to review Lowery’s case.

The spokesman, Nathanial Miller, said a preliminary look at Lowery’s file indicates Bittler, the veterans service center manager, concluded Lowery’s wounds weren’t service connected merely because Lowery was in Las Vegas when an appointment had been arranged for April 5, 2011, for a VA physical in Honolulu where Lowery also has a residence.

VA officials in Hawaii had mistakenly assumed he was already there and scheduled a physical for him. Instead, he was still in Las Vegas. So, when they called about the appointment, he requested they cancel it so he wouldn’t be a “no-show” and only schedule it after he arrived.

“They agreed,” Lowery said. “I arrived and called the hospital for the appointment only to discover the VA in Reno had already closed the case.”

Miller said: “I’m not saying it’s his fault. I’m not saying it’s our fault. We want to help him certainly.”

CATCH-22

Regardless of who is to blame, Lowery said he feels the VA has played a shell game with his case after he filed his claim in 1994, the year after he retired as a major.

That time, his war wounds were deemed not related to his military service because the VA had requested his medical file from Department of Defense archives but never received it. Without the file, there was no evidence of his wounds and thus no reason to schedule a physical examination, he was told.

“They explained to me they had reached their decision with no health record in front of them. I asked how that happened, and he (the claims processor) said, ‘Well, when we sent off a request to the archive to produce your medical records,’ the only thing they had was my pre-induction physical and one visit to the Nellis Air Force Base hospital after I retired,” Lowery said.

He noted that VA officials made no further effort to resolve the two-decade gap in his medical file.

Fortunately, Lowery had copied the 2-inch-thick file that includes a narrative from a U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, from March 15, 1969.

“This 22 year old CPL/USMC was admitted to this hospital on 15 March with a history of having sustained a gun shot wound across the posterior aspect of both thighs on the 5th of March,” the narrative states.

Concerned that he might have complications later in life from those wounds and his 1989 neck injury, Lowery provided the VA Reno benefits office with his copy of his medical records to reopen the claim in 2010. Again it was rejected as not related to his military service because he was in Las Vegas when his physical exam was scheduled for Hawaii.

“It’s just a shame that officials at the top in authority have done (things) where they’ve kept double logs and falsified waiting times and tinkered with people’s cases to avoid providing service,” he said, referring to the scandal at VA facilities in Phoenix.

“I’ve heard many cases of fine service on the part of the VA doctors and nurses, counselors, people who work tirelessly and do lots of things to help (veterans). But of course it’s only the outrageous failures that make headlines. My hat is off to everybody in the VA, from the clerks and logisticians and the people who keep their supplies. They do a terrific, wonderful job.”

CLOGGED WITH CASES

Patel’s confirmation that Heller’s office would assist Lowery coincided with release of a letter Friday that the senator sent to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, calling for him to “expeditiously” appoint a new director for the VA Reno office because it “has remained one of the worst … in the nation and currently has the highest percentage of backlogged claims.”

VA Reno Director Ed Russell has been on administrative leave since July after Heller called for his resignation in the wake of an inspector general’s report that concluded problems have persisted due to poor management.

Lowery said he has “mixed feelings” about the VA’s claims process but is willing to give it another chance.

“Besides being somebody who served and was injured in service, I’m still a taxpayer. I need people who are running the government, my government, to carry out their duties. I don’t want them to open the bank vaults and say, ‘Here’s a check,’ for everybody who applies.”

Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.

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