It took 11 times the length of World War II for Army veteran Stanley Friedman to win his battle with the V.A.
After 67 years of nightmares and bouts of anxiety and depression, Mr. Friedman, with the help of dogged lawyers working pro bono, began receiving benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder in 2012 at age 92.
He enjoyed 3 and 1/2 years of disability benefits that transformed his fixed-income existence. And when his medical needs became overwhelming, he was able to move to a top-notch veterans’ residence, the Green House homes at the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago.
He died peacefully there Feb. 17 after a “wonderful weekend,” said his wife of 61 years, Minna Rae Friedman. He was 94.
“We were dipping strawberries in chocolate for Valentine’s Day,” she said. “He dozed off and never woke up.”
During World War II, his ocean convoy was attacked near Casablanca by enemy subs and bombers. In Tunisia, he just missed boarding a military truck that hit a mine and blew up in front of him, killing two dozen men, his wife said. Mr. Friedman cradled one in his arms as he died.
He saw multiple casualties in Italy when a mess hall exploded. Built over a plot of land with unexploded ordnance, the mess hall detonated from the heat and sparks from cooking.
A technical sergeant, Mr. Friedman was a MacGyver of machines and medical instruments. He could repair binoculars and crack safes. He crafted a dental device for soldiers with battlefield jaw wounds.
Even while surrounded by the reek of death, he scavenged for parts. He crawled through U.S. tanks destroyed at the Battle of the Kassirene Pass in Tunisia, where American troops were pummeled by the forces of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox” known for his daring and mastery of the African landscape.
After the war, Mr. Friedman married, excelled at sales and raised his family in Skokie. But he remained bothered by a wartime back injury, sleep disturbances and irritability.
In 2009, the John Marshall Law School’s veterans’ support clinic issued an email appeal for legal help for vets. James Garrett, then with the law firm of DLA Piper in San Diego, studied the list of needy vets, some who’d fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam.
“The last name on the list said ‘World War II,’ ” Garrett said. “My immediate thought was, ‘How could anybody from World War II still be in need of legal services?’ ”
Mr. Friedman’s original claim for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs was filed in the early 1990s, but paperwork documenting his combat service couldn’t be located, so his claim was denied.
“For years, they were telling me my records were lost, that I had no records,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2012.
A catastrophic 1973 fire at a St. Louis military records facility had destroyed about 18 million personnel files. And though the aging veteran could recall his frightening wartime experiences in detail, Mr. Friedman had few recollections of specifics such as place names.
Garrett worked on the case for more than three years, along with Veronica Jackson, another attorney at the San Diego office of DLA Piper.
“I kinda dug in,” Garrett said.
A history buff, he pieced together Mr. Friedman’s stories. He knew the Army Air Corps had become the U.S Air Force. “Once I requested the records from the Air Force,” Garrett said, “I was able to find records and references to him.”
Garrett went online and joined World War II groups, emailing veterans and their families to ask whether anyone knew of Mr. Friedman. In the end, he put together an 11-inch-high stack of 800 pages of documentation to prove his combat service.
After hearing Mr. Friedman tell of being bombed in a North African orchard, “I was actually able to prove the specific German unit and planes that bombed the very orchards that he told the government about,” Garrett said.
Garrett said of the V.A.: “They did not search hard enough.”
In 2011, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals reversed a previous denial of benefits, sending the case back to Chicago’s V.A. office at 2122 W. Taylor St. Still, it took more than a year to free up the money. Even then, his initial award short-changed him. The V.A. maintained Mr. Friedman had no dependents, though he had been married since the 1950s and had three daughters.
“I cannot begin to tell you the level of frustration I had with the system and the bureacracy,” Garrett said.
He got help from attorney Oksana Koltko of Chicago’s DLA Piper office. “We literally sat in there and said, ‘We’re not leaving till you send out a supervisor and tell us why this [delay] is happening,’ ” Garrett said.
“We refused to leave,” Koltko said. “I definitely remember Jim and I sitting there many, many hours.”
In 2012, at 92, Mr. Friedman started receiving monthly disability-PTSD benefits, as well as a lump sum retroactive to about 2000. The Friedmans were overwhelmed with relief and gratitude.
Garrett “changed our lives,” said Minna Rae Friedman, who wrote so many appeal letters to the VA that they filled boxes. DLA Piper “spent hundreds of hours” on the case, she said.
Mr. Friedman praised his lawyers in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. “Piper,” he said, “made a new person out of me.”
The breakthrough qualified him for medical care through the V.A., allowing him to move to the Green House homes 18 months ago, when his medical needs outpaced his wife’s ability to care for him. She praised the staff and bright, cozy facilities as “incredible.”
“He was a helluva man,” said John Bair, a psychologist at the Lovell center. Mr. Friedman was revered by the younger veterans who lived with him. “He was a leader and a mentor, and so many, many men have great wounds in their life now because he was a heroic figure to them.”
Mr. Friedman is also survived by three daughters, Hallie Friedman, Nan Friedman and Ruth Bauer, and five grandchildren. Services have been held.
“I’ve been a lawyer 15 years. I was in the Peace Corps and a firefighter before that,” Garrett said. “This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. He and his family were very deserving.”
“I just sent his daughter a birthday present,” Minna Rae Friedman said. “He is family. He is very special to us.”
At the birth of her son Alexander, the Friedmans sent Koltko a gift embroidered with the baby’s name.
“Every time we would come, he would have tears in his eyes, and he would say ‘Tthank you,’ ” Koltko said. “We should be thanking him.”