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Battling the bureaucracy for veterans

David Gifford proudly stood as a congressman presented him with medals for meritorious service in the Air Force and the Army. The assembled crowd applauded as the representative gave a short speech. Photos were snapped and a news camera rolled.

And Gifford, 61, beamed. He was not at the White House or a formal military ceremony, but in his humble backyard in Waynesville, surrounded by family and standing in front of a small banner emblazoned with the mantra Support Our Troops, finally receiving his accolades nearly 40 years after he earned them.  

This intimate ceremony was the culmination of years of work by his wife, Kim, who was told that to get her husband’s medals for his service in Vietnam, she’d have to pay for them.

Unable to do so, she eventually enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, who threw his weight around to get the military awards free of charge.

Gifford’s story is far from unique among veterans, even though rewards recognizing bravery and service are promised for free to GIs coming home. They’re even supposed to get one replacement for every award without paying for it.

But that doesn’t always happen. Brandon Wilson knows that very well, as the veterans’ services officer for Haywood County.

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“Most veterans’ services officers help widows or veterans themselves get medals,” said Wilson, because when the vets or their families try to do it on their own, they’re often stymied by red tape or get lost in the bowels of massive, draconian bureaucracy that is the U.S. military.

Or, in the cash-strapped recession economy, the particular branch of military may not have the right medals in stock or the money to order them. And what can and can’t be done is likely to change with every call, depending on who you talk to.

“It’s supposed to be free. That’s supposed to be what happens,” said Wilson. “But I’m supposed to be six feet tall and beautiful and worth half a million dollars.”

In his one-year tenure as Haywood’s veterans officer, he’s helped around 20 vets and their spouses get the medals owed to them, some dating as far back as World War I.

Each branch of service deals with its own medals and awards internally, and getting them depends largely on the diligence of a commanding officer to file the right paperwork and follow through with it. If they don’t, people like Gifford fall through the cracks.

“When you get the medal and you’ve earned the medal, right then they’re supposed to have an awards ceremony to give that Marine, soldier, sailor that medal on the spot. But it all depends on the command,” said Wilson. “Some commands do it when you get home, some do it on the field, some forget to do it altogether.”

Gifford spent seven years on active duty with the Air Force and another 14 with the Army. Two of those years were served in Vietnam, on a detail that he called “suicide jockey.”

“I drove a fuel tanker that was traffic yellow,” said Gifford.

In Vietnam and after, he said he was repeatedly promised medals for risking his life almost daily, but when he returned to U.S. soil, they never materialized.

“When we got home, the only thing we got was spit at and garbage thrown at us,” said Gifford.

His wife went around and around with the Army for years afterwards, trying to get them on his behalf.

“I’ve been fighting the VA (Veterans’ Affairs) for 18 years,” said Kim Gifford. “They kept telling me that his medals, he had to pay for them.”

It’s not so much that medals are in short supply. There are companies around the country that will supply you with nearly any U.S. military medal imaginable, for a price, of course.

Should you want to buy yourself a pair of military dress blues online and order a few dozen medals from an outfit like Medals of America, you too can appear to be a decorated serviceman in a matter of days, though it’s a felony if you didn’t earn them.

In fact, Medals of America is where the military itself refers veterans when they don’t have the resources to hand out their own medals.

They’re not inordinately expensive; a Purple Heart would set you back $34.95 plus tax.

“But if you can get a Purple Heart medal from the United States Marine Corps for free, why would you want to pay $35 for it?” asks Wilson. “I mean hell, you already paid for it, it’s yours.”

When even he can’t cut through the bureaucratic quagmire to get the medals gratis for veterans, Wilson and his compatriots — there’s a veterans’ services officer in every county — often turn to heavyweights like Rep. Shuler, whose clout is more effective at red-tape cutting.

“These men and women have made invaluable contributions to our nation and fought to defend the values of freedom and democracy that all Americans hold dear, and it is important that they receive the medals and awards they earned and deserve,” said Shuler, who said he’s long had a close relationship with vets and the VA in Western North Carolina.

But for those without access to a congressman, there is Veterans’ Legacy, a group that popped up in North Carolina last year to help vets get the recognition they’re owed.

John Elskamp is a retired Air Force veteran, and when he was on active duty, tracking down medals for service members was part of his job. After getting out, he and some friends just kept going with it.

Ten years later, they’ve found the demand to be so great that they set up a nonprofit to help deal with the requests, and Veterans’ Legacy was born.

Elskamp said that while yes, it’s possible for a veteran or their family to pursue an unawarded medal, or even get recognized for service that was never awarded a medal but should have been — a much larger task — it’s hard for a layperson to manage alone.

“They have to do all the work, they have to go through a member of Congress to submit it, and that’s a tall order for most veterans,” said Elskamp, who is based in a small community just west of Ft. Bragg.

“Even if it was already awarded, (the veteran) just wants replacement medals, that’s something fairly simple, but something that requires a lot of research for the veterans’ services officer to do.”

Elskamp and his colleagues are part detective, part paper pushers, poring through old files in forgotten archival warehouses, tracking down platoon leaders and commanding officers and funneling it all through the administrative processes of the military.

They take the hard cases, and those can take anywhere from 30 to 40 days for the easier ones to several years for the trickiest.

The group offers their service free of charge, because, said Elskamp, they can relate to the importance veterans attach to these medals.

“I mean, I’m a military man so I know what I did in the military is important to me and my family, and the same goes for other veterans,” said Elskamp. “It’s something that you want to leave behind.” Which is why the group is called Veterans’ Legacy.

Though most of the work they do is for veterans of long-past wars, newer cases are finding their way into the groups’ caseload. And with new veterans coming back all the time, Elskamp doesn’t see his service becoming obsolete, even in the digital age.

“I think we’ll always be needed, because even though everything’s on the Internet, people just don’t know what questions to ask,” he said, which is often a good chunk of the battle.

In WNC, Rep. Shuler is pretty active in the field, working to get medals for war widows and vets across the region. Next on the docket is a war widow in Macon County.

Wilson, too, is busy working on new cases himself, trying to get a service medal to one of the last remaining WWI wives in the region. He’s also recently been able to return a Purple Heart to its rightful owner in Bryson City and get long overdue World War II medals for his own grandfather.

Although this work is really just a footnote to the main portion of his job, he sees it as an important part of supporting veterans.

“What I’m majorly here for is to improve the quality of life of these people, and at least I’ve done something for them to make them feel good about themselves or feel positive about themselves.”

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