William Lewis still fighting the system


By Norm Winick


William Lewis has been fighting the system his entire life — and the system is winning.

The Vietnam veteran is now battling the Veterans Administration to get a hearing on his disability claim. He displayed an envelope dated May 8, 2006 containing a letter notifying him about a hearing on his case scheduled for May 1st. When he didn’t show up, they ruled against him. Of course.

“I’ve waited two years for this hearing and then look what happens. They won’t even talk to me or apologize.”

It isn’t quite so simple. Lewis had moved in September 2005 and says he notified everybody of his new address. They used it for other mailings, he claims. The notice for his hearing went first to his old address and then back to the VA. They remailed it a week after the hearing date.

Lewis was born and raised in Galesburg. He was a standout pitcher for the Silver Streaks. Those were his best days.

Now 58, Lewis says he can’t work because of his service-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, peptic ulcers, carpal tunnel and other ailments. He still suffers nightmares, night sweats and flashbacks from his tour of duty in Vietnam.

The VA has declared that he is 30 percent disabled and he gets a whopping $337 a month to live on. “I cannot work but they want you to have 50 percent or more disability to be unemployable.” Lewis lives in subsidized housing in Galesburg and has an Illinois Link Card to help with food purchases. He’s not starving but he’s not doing as well as he was when he first finished high school.

After high school, as a single parent, he was classified 3-A and was working as a spray painter in a plating plant making $147 a week.

For no reason he knows, he was classified 1-A in 1968, drafted, and was sent to Fort Dix, N.J., to be a cook. He worked KP the entire time and his starting pay was all of $77 a month. He was never sent to cooking school. With nine months left in his obligation, he was ordered to Vietnam as an infantry cook. “They don’t send anybody to ’Nam with nine months left,” he added. “They had never sent me to cooking school. I had no training at all; I had no AIT [Advanced Infantry Training] either. I was loading body bags onto trucks in the DMZ.”

Lewis was discharged from the service on January 4, 1970 — three months early — because of the medical issues that were apparent.

He settled in Oakland, Calif. And was driving a cab. “I applied to be a flight attendant with Western Airlines and they wouldn’t even interview me. At that time they had no blacks and no males. I hired a lawyer and we filed a suit. It became a class-action and made it all the way through the court system and he ultimately won. “This was 1975. Western Airlines was ordered to hire 1/3 male or minority flight attendants. I got $5,000. No job. No back pay. The lawyers got all the money.”

Still driving a cab and working in a liquor store in Oakland, Lewis got by for 25 years. He moved back to Galesburg in 1999 and has been trying to get on disability ever since.

They’ve rejected his peptic ulcer and carpal tunnel syndrome as not being service connected and his PTSD as only 30 percent disabling. Social Security denied him, too.

“We catchin’ hell, man. If we aren’t sick, dealing with them makes us sicker.”

At this point, Lewis wants his hearing rescheduled and he wants a lawyer to represent him. He says he’s not alone in his frustration. “Veterans must come together to let them know we have voting power and we aren’t going to keep being abused. I want a hearing to find out why the veterans of Illinois have to appeal so many times to get what they are entitled to compared to veterans in other states.”