NEW LONDON - Honor was the most important principle to William Vincent Clevenger, who was disabled while serving as an Army medic in Korea. Now his widow hopes someone in Veterans Affairs will recognize that and act honorably themselves.
Ellen Clevenger, his widow, has been waiting since September for her payments as a widow of a disabled veteran to be reinstated. Not only were her payments cut off when her husband died, the government froze her bank account and Social Security payments until she repaid the amount her husband received for September.
He died on Sept. 23, 2007, but she had to give back the full amount of his disability payments for the month. She still hasn't been able to finish paying for his funeral.
"I don't want to apply for welfare," Ellen Clevenger said. That was the suggestion of one of the representatives from Veteran's Affairs she's reached on the phone in the five months she has tried to get her survivor's benefits started.
Since her husband's retirement, the couple had been living on his disability and retirement payments. William Clevenger was 78 when he died and Ellen is 72.
She said even though her husband was entitled to full disability after a mortar explosion destroyed most of his vision and hearing, he found jobs when he returned to New London because he believed he was capable of supporting his family.
As the widow of a disabled veteran, Clevenger is entitled to more than $1,000 a month. Veterans Affairs representatives in Cleveland originally told her she wasn't eligible for any benefits, then said it would take 60 to 90 days for the paperwork to be processed and her payments to start. She since has been told it could take several months or up to a year. "The story keeps changing," she said.
"I just don't know how long I can hang on," she said. Since her husband's death in September, she has been using credit cards to pay bills.
"I don't want anybody feeling sorry for me. I want to honor my obligations," Clevenger said. "But the government needs to honor theirs. I'm getting to the point of desperation."
Her husband volunteered to serve as a medic in the Korean War and served three years before his injury. She said he would tell her about the nightmares about the war that woke him at night.
"He said, 'You don't know what it is to see a guy's brains blown out. You don't know what it's like to have to cut a guy's leg off,'" Clevenger said. But even with the horrors he witnessed, she said, her husband said he would go back and serve again if he was able.
"His concern was the soldiers he could help," she said. "He was 100 percent for the service."
Richard Carlisle, who runs the Norwalk office for Veterans Affairs, said he is also frustrated with the system.
"They have a backlog that the VA won't recognize," he said. "It makes my job extremely difficult."
He said there is no doubt that William Clevenger was a disabled veteran who was honorably discharged.
"Why isn't it over the day she walked in there?" he asked. "It is all in his file. The rules and regulations are absurd. She's met all the requirements."
Carlisle said he tries to help local veterans and their families get through the maze of federal regulations, but he also hits roadblocks.
He said the only recourse many veterans and widowed spouses have it to contact senators and representatives. "That's the best shot they've got," he said.