A veteran's final fight against a broken VA benefits system

Marine veteran died while waiting for VA benefits to be paid (photo courtesy Steve DiCicco).

Mary Lou met Robert DiCicco while both were serving in the Marine Corps. He had just returned from Korean War where he fought near what is now the border between North Korea and South Korea. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune and so was Mary Lou.

"He told his cousin he wanted to date a female marine, so his cousin happened to be dating a good friend of mine, a southern girl from Alabama," recalls Mary Lou.

The two met, married and had three kids, two who later served in the National Guard. They enjoyed a full life filled with joy, but as is inevitable, time took its toll.

"It got to where I couldn't take care of him. He was in rehab at the veteran's hospital for quite a while, and I couldn't take care of him and the housework and all that. So, we decided we needed to move in here," said Mary Lou.

Three months before that, in May, the DiCicco's son had submitted paperwork to the Department of Veterans Affairs so his parents could receive what's known as "Aid and Attendance." That's the benefit that helps veterans who need assisted care.

Kim Moseley is the regional director at the Four Seasons Residential Care Center. She agreed to take the couple in, beliving the money would come later that month, at the end of August.

"I think the va had told him 90 days, something like that," recalled Moseley.

However, day after day, month after month, phone call after phone call, the money did not come. Robert began to worry that the country he promised to protect wouldn't keep its promise to him. Almost every day he rolled his wheelchair to Kim's office

"He'd ask how much is my tab today? It was hard," said Moseley.

The DiCicco's son Steve tried to track down the problem.

"You cannot get updates from these people at the VA. I have a list of 800 numbers that I called, I don't know how many states. It seems like no one's computer is hooked up to anyone else's computer," said Steven DiCicco.

He called representatives, senators, and dozens of VA helpline numbers. He received help and a sympathetic ear from Senator John Boozman's office. Meanwhile, the bill at the assisted living facility had ballooned to $40,000.

"That was all he talked about, wondering why they wouldn't pay us and help us pay this to these people who were being so patient to us," said Mary Lou.

Moseley said she couldn't bare to kick them out of the facility. She and the staff loved the couple, so she reassured the owner, the bill would be payed somehow.

"I was telling him 'It's going to come. It's going to come' and then finally they sold their little house to pay their bill," said Moseley.

The DiCicco's sold their family home in Benton at a loss, hoping the VA would reimburse them someday.

"It was hard, hard to get by," said Mary Lou.

Eventually Steve learned because his dad had lied about his age to go fight in Korea, so his birth certificate didn't match his record. It had been corrected decades ago in the VA health system but the benefits system needed it's own correction. The birth certificate they already had wasn't enough. They needed a new copy and new forms.

"Fill out a DD-149 form and send us another copy of his birth certificate. I said, 'OK, how long does that take?' Three change one digit from 1930 to 1932," said DiCicco.

The story is frustrating, but all too common. Just in 2018, Senator John Boozman's office has fielded 483 pleas for help from Arkansans frustrated with the VA. Last week, Senator Boozman was appointed Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. He now holds a tighter grasp on the purse strings of a system that he describes as broken.

"It takes too long, and as you've discovered in your reporting, people get bound up in bureaucracies. There's no excuse for it," said Sen. Boozman.

The senator's own father also had lied about his age in order to serve. Boozman said the system is impossible for many older veterans to navigate without help. Boozman said he wants the subcommittee to provide resources to the VA to "bring the system into this century." Steve DiCicco agrees that his 85-year-old marine father was no match for the red tape.

"I can't imagine how many people have passed away or given up on this maze of red tape that you have to go through," said DiCicco.

"They don't tell you who to turn to for help. They're just left dangling there," added Mary Lou.

Robert DiCicco didn't live to see his country keep its promise. He died on March 2. Ten days later, the DiCicco's got their approval letter and a payment.

"He didn't live to see it. That's what hurt," said Mary Lou.

Now, the process begins again. Because Robert died, the VA took back the payment and is now processing a new one with Mary Lou as the primary veteran beneficiary.

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