Doug Lietzau was a young airman in 1975 — a kid, really — when they launched Operation Babylift, a desperate attempt by the US military to evacuate children, many of them orphans, from Vietnam as the Viet Cong moved south.
It was mass confusion, trying to sort out what was what and who was who, all the while as the Viet Cong advanced from Da Nang toward Saigon and shells rained down. One of the planes, carrying twice as many kids as it should have, went down.
But those things, horrible things, happen in war. It’s a little harder explaining what happened to Doug Lietzau, a 59-year-old veteran who’s been at war for some five years with the same government that sent him to war 40 years ago, a government that can find you when it wants to and lose you when it suits them.
Doug Lietzau had a good life and a good job selling computers but his world turned upside down in 2002 when a drunk driver plowed head-on into his motorcycle in Framingham. He went through the other guy’s windshield, head first. It was the fourth DWI for the guy who hit him.
Doug’s brain injury cost him his health, his job, his marriage, and just about every piece of stability in his life. He tried to survive on a small pension from the Veterans Administration that a social worker at his rehab unit helped arrange, but ended up homeless. He applied for a Social Security disability pension but was turned down. He got lucky when his appeal was assigned, pro bono, to Steve Veenema, a young, idealistic lawyer at Brown Rudnick downtown.
Veenema won the SSDI appeal and for a few months, Lietzau was getting both the VA pension and the SSDI. Lietzau said he went to the VA downtown and told a woman at the counter that he was getting both benefits. She told him not to worry. But when the checks kept coming, he said he mailed some of them back to the VA.
Eventually, the $931-a-month VA pension stopped. A couple of years passed. And then, three years ago, the VA told Lietzau he wasn’t entitled to the pension he’d gotten between 2008 and 2009 because he was also receiving Social Security. They demanded $15,701 in restitution. They threw in $5,000 in fines.
“They said I was double-dipping, but I wasn’t,” Lietzau said. “There might have been an overlap of a few months, when I got both checks, but they were saying it was more than a year. No way. I went to the VA and told them and they sent me away. Then they told me to call someone in Minnesota. I called there and somebody hung up on me. Then they hit me with this, and $5,000 in penalties.”
Veenema, by this time with a new firm, Murphy & King, took up the case again.
“It was their mistake, not his,” said Veenema. “Doug had, in fact, told people at a veterans service office that he began receiving Social Security checks. This is a veteran with a brain injury who was homeless, barely surviving.”
Veenema wrote to the VA, demanding a waiver to forgive the alleged debt. The VA writing off 15 grand for a homeless veteran should be no big deal, right?
But Veenema never heard back from the VA, even as it turned down the waiver. The VA says it sent letters to Lietzau. And apparently they did. To an old address in Malden that Lietzau hadn’t lived at for two years. But the VA never corresponded with his lawyer. To this day, Veenema says, they haven’t.
Funny, the VA couldn’t find Lietzau or his lawyer, but the US Treasury had no problem. Last year, the Treasury started garnishing $307 a month from Lietzau’s monthly $1,500 Social Security check to pay the debt the VA claimed it owed them. The guy’s living on $18,000 a year and the government took 20 percent of that.
When the VA initially refused to grant the debt waiver, Veenema wrote to the VA Debt Management Center in Fort Snelling, Minn. When he called the VA there, asking who to address the letter to, they only gave him a single name, Jamie. They wouldn’t give him a last name. So he wrote to Jamie. No last name.
“It should be abundantly clear,” Veenema wrote to Jamie, “that Mr. Lietzau has not been treated with the respect and courtesy our veterans deserve.”
He never heard back.
And, then, suddenly, just last month, Doug Lietzau gets in the mail, at his actual address in Winthrop, a check to reimburse him for the money the Treasury Department took from him.
Veenema thinks the reimbursement is a little short, but that’s not the point. In that time, Doug Lietzau, one of the veterans we profess to appreciate every second week of November, couldn’t afford the medication that kept his headaches bearable, the tinnitus — the constant ringing in his ears — at bay.
“I call it cicadas,” Lietzau says, “because that’s what it sounds like.”
A guy who served his country in a time of war suffered needlessly because of those who put the bureau in bureaucracy.
Last week, Veenema found out through congressional contacts that the VA had, in fact, waived the debt. The decision was dated Sept. 5. Still, neither he nor Lietzau have received anything in writing. They can’t get the VA to offer an explanation. Neither could I.
Veenema is still waiting, as Lietzau’s lawyer, for some formal acknowledgement from the VA.
As a public service, I’m printing the address: Steven M. Veenema, Esq. Murphy & King, One Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.
It’s a big building, right on the corner of Beacon and Tremont streets. You can’t miss it.
Well, actually you can. If you want to.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.