TAMPA — Edgar Freyre has fought a running battle for a Department of Veterans Affairs disability pension since 1967.
In that time, the Tampa resident said he has seen innumerable delays caused by doctors, by VA claims examiners, by missing records and by old-fashioned bureaucratic inertia.
But now, Freyre said, he's facing a new delay. His claim is lost in translation.
The 81-year-old's VA claim has ground to a halt with no action taken in six months because Freyre submitted a document to the agency that was written in Spanish, VA records show.
The document is a history of Freyre's old U.S. Army unit that he found on the Web. It was an all-Puerto Rican outfit that was decimated in the Korean War. Freyre, who lived in Puerto Rico until he was 13, served in the Army from 1948 to 1950.
Before he saw combat, Freyre was discharged, which he believed saved his life.
Sending the document to the VA had no real purpose. He's just proud of the unit. Freyre, who is bilingual, said he didn't even think about whether it was in English or Spanish before he mailed it.
The Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington, D.C., where Freyre had appealed the VA's latest denial of his claim, told Freyre in June it was sending his case back to the VA's St. Petersburg office for one purpose — to translate the document.
Freyre said he called repeatedly to try to speed things up. His lawyer did the same. Nothing worked.
After the St. Petersburg Times contacted the VA about Freyre's claim last week, the agency announced the document had finally been translated.
Now the VA in St. Petersburg is sending the case back to Washington. Freyre is frustrated because it took six months to do what he said a second-year high school Spanish student could do in two hours.
"They don't want to give me anything," said Freyre. "They find excuses to delay."
Freyre, who has worked in construction among other jobs, is in ill health — problems that his doctors link to his Army service 60 years ago. In 1957, he was diagnosed with schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms. Freyre thinks he got the disease from contaminated water during Army training in Puerto Rico, where the affliction is prevalent.
The disease eventually led to a condition that damaged his liver.
The VA said it didn't have difficulty translating the document.
"The delay was not due to processing of the translation, but due to the volume of appeals and the detailed review required," said VA spokeswoman Collette Burgess. "Translation of foreign-language documents, while not frequent, is not unusual."
The VA has employees fluent in Spanish and other languages "to ensure that we avoid needless delays," she said.
Freyre has suffered health problems since the 1950s, including abdominal pain and diarrhea. He filed his first claim with the VA in 1967.
Freyre's doctors say health problems he has suffered for decades are linked to schistosomiasis. But his claims have been denied, with the VA arguing he showed no symptoms upon his 1950 discharge. Freyre has presented medical opinions showing the disease can have a long latency period.
His claim has been reopened twice since 1967 without any better outcome.
Most recently, Freyre got the case reopened after a new blood test indicated he had, in fact, once contracted schistosomiasis. The VA's St. Petersburg benefits office denied the claim.
Now, the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington has the case. That's where Freyre sent his unit's Spanish-language history.
T. Bennett Acuff, a Tampa attorney who is working on Freyre's claim free of charge, said it can be hard to convince Freyre that the VA isn't deliberately delaying the case so he will die before a dime is paid.
Acuff said the problem is a dysfunctional claims process.
"There is no grand conspiracy," Acuff said. "Unfortunately, this is just the way the system works."
As for translating the document, he recommended the VA try a few handy tools next time.
"A few minutes on Google or at freetranslation.com should take care of the problem," Acuff said.
Contact William R. Levesque at firstname.lastname@example.org.