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News From The Past

Abilene Reporter-News
May 19, 1997

War hero's mom upset that she can't get benefits from the VA

EDINBURG, Texas (AP) - Since the day Dolia Gonzalez lost her son in the Vietnam War she has been comforted by the recognition he received - a Medal of Honor and, later, a warship named in his honor.

She never felt that the government owed her anything, but was thankful when the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation checks from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began arriving in March 1968.

But now, the mother of the Vietnam War hero Alfredo "Freddy" Gonzalez says she is locked in a fight with the government her son died for.

The government is forcing Ms. Gonzalez to pay back benefits she received for his combat death.

"My son gave his life in Vietnam," she is quoted as saying in the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen. "Why should I have to pay them so much money back when I don't even have anybody to support me anymore? It's the principle."

Ms. Gonzalez started receiving checks a month after her only son died during his second tour of duty in Vietnam.

The monthly checks for spouses and dependent parents of soldiers killed in combat started out at $54. They grew over the years to about $260 before they stopped coming in 1992, she said.

Two years ago, the VA sent Ms. Gonzalez a notice demanding repayment for the checks that the VA said were issued erroneously. Since then, she's made monthly payments of $10, but the 68-year-old waitress at the Echo Hotel still owes $7,001, she said.

Ms. Gonzalez has battled the VA bureaucracy in an attempt to get the checks restarted and her debt erased.

Chris Escamilla, Hidalgo County Veteran's Service Officer, has tried to help Ms. Gonzalez get the DIC benefits reinstated.

"The benefits are complicated in that she's a dependent mother instead of a dependent wife, so it's governed by different regulations," Escamilla said. "As a dependent mother, her benefits are governed by income, how much money she makes."

Escamilla said Ms. Gonzalez would have a better chance of receiving benefits if she did not work.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa's office said the congressman has arranged to meet with Ms. Gonzalez after Memorial Day. He declined to comment further until the office reviews Ms. Gonzalez's correspondence with the Veterans' Affairs department.

Ms. Gonzalez said she wants to retire, but she can't afford to.

She receives $399 per month in Social Security and about $150 a week working 32 hours weekly waiting tables.

"The water and the lights are expensive," she said. "The bills keep going higher and higher and I have to eat, too."

Escamilla said he's sympathetic to Ms. Gonzalez's problem, but the VA is bound by its rules.

"The VA can't say 'you're Freddy Gonzalez's mother so we aren't going to touch it,' " he said. "The law said we have to make arrangements to pay that amount."

The newspaper said calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs were referred to the regional office in Houston. In Houston, a spokesman at first said he could not provide information without a VA claim number. The VA did not return repeated phone calls after the claim number was provided, the newspaper said. The office was closed on Sunday.

For Ms. Gonzalez to receive her benefits, Congress would have to change the law governing VA benefits, Escamilla said.

"A congressman could introduce legislation that would specify that any dependent spouse of a veteran who died in service and is a Medal of Honor recipient should be covered under the DIC as a surviving spouse instead of a dependent parent," he said. "Congress would have to vote on that."

Ms. Gonzalez's son, a 21-year-old Marine sergeant, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions at Hue City, Vietnam, during the start of the infamous Tet Offensive. In October, he became the first Hispanic Texan to have a Navy ship commissioned in his honor, the USS Gonzalez.

 
1997, by Abilene Reporter-News / Texnews
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Related Follow-up Story Below


News From The Past

Abilene Reporter-News
May 19, 1997

VA ends its quest to reclaim survivor's benefits from Texas woman

By MICHELLE MITTELSTADT 
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - For 67-year-old waitress Dolia Gonzalez of Edinburg, Texas, life has offered a new lesson: Sometimes you can take on the federal government and win.

Mrs. Gonzalez had been battling the Department of Veterans Affairs for years over survivor's benefits she began receiving in 1968, when her son, Medal of Honor recipient Alfredo "Freddy" Gonzalez, was killed in combat in Vietnam.

The government contended Mrs. Gonzalez was mistakenly given some $8,000 in excess payments and demanded repayment.

But after prodding from Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, and media attention, the VA reversed itself this week, erasing the remaining $7,681 debt. The case had become a regional cause celebre - just a few weeks ago, a supermarket chain agreed to shoulder the debt.

"We at the Department of Veterans Affairs are aware of and grateful for your son's supreme sacrifice for his country," said a letter to Mrs. Gonzalez from the director of the VA's Houston regional office. "After careful consideration of the information available ... we have decided to clear the debt balance on your account."

Mrs. Gonzalez and her congressman planned a news conference Saturday afternoon in McAllen to celebrate the announcement. On Friday, she said she was pleased that her battle with Washington bureaucrats had ended favorably.

"I feel a lot better, much, much better," she said in a telephone interview from her home. "It's over with, and I'm glad it's over with, and I'm more at ease now, I'm more content."

A spokesman for Hinojosa, who had pleaded Mrs. Gonzalez' case with VA Secretary Jesse Brown, said his boss was "elated" by the VA's about-face.

"This is nothing less than Mrs. Gonzalez deserves," said Anton Papich.

Freddy Gonzalez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for saving more than a dozen lives. Wounded three times in as many days, the 21-year-old sergeant refused treatment and continued to lead his platoon, rescuing Marines until he was killed by a North Vietnamese rocket.

Gonzalez became the first Hispanic Texan to have a Navy ship named after him last year when the USS Gonzalez was commissioned. The $1 billion destroyer is the nation's only active warship named for a Hispanic. His hometown of Edinburg has named an elementary school and a street after him.

A month after his 1968 death, Mrs. Gonzalez began receiving survivor's benefits. Those payments grew to $260 a month before stopping in 1992.

Told that she must make restitution, Mrs. Gonzalez began devoting $10 of her waitress salary each month to erase the debt.

Mrs. Gonzalez, who still works, has said she would like to retire but can't afford to. She receives $399 monthly in Social Security and about $150 a week waiting tables.

Asked if she felt treated unfairly by her government, she said Friday: "I don't know if it was wrong, but ... I wonder how many other mothers are going through the same thing I am going through."

1997, by Abilene Reporter-News / Texnews
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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