Bamboozled: WWII veteran’s family is looking for answers

Carmine Francis Arpaia was a U.S. Marine who served in Japan during World War II.

He came back home safe, and lived out his years with his wife Virginia, with whom he had four children – one just before the war, and three when he returned.

He died in 1970. Now, more than 40 years later, his adult children are fighting to get answers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) about benefits for which their mom might be due.

“The VA buried this in red tape for several years until she passed away, and then said the file was closed,” said son Steve Arpaia of New Providence. “We spoke with the VA over 50 times, wrote letter upon letter, filled out duplicate forms several times. All we wanted was an answer.”

Arpaia said he’s grateful his mother didn’t need the money to live, but he and his sister Nancy Arpaia Woronowich worry about the families of other veterans.

“I can’t imagine a young widow having to go through this bureaucracy and get nowhere,” Woronowich said. “People who have served their country deserve better.”

Here’s what happened.

As Virginia Arpaia got on in years, she needed help. In 2008, she moved into an assisted living facility near Woronowich in South Carolina.

“It was extremely expensive,” Woronowich said. “We were concerned that there would come a time that her money would run out and we did not want to have to move her as she was already confused with dementia.”

In conversations about their mom’s care, they learned their mother might be eligible for VA benefits because of her husband’s service.

That’s when Woronowich and Arpaia decided to contact VA to see if any help was available to their mom.

In February 2009, Woronowich, who had power of attorney for her mother, applied for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Death Pension and Accrued Benefits by a Surviving Spouse or Child.

Months passed and there were requests from VA for additional information, which Woronowich said she submitted.

Frustrated by delays and duplicate requests for paperwork, Woronowich reached out to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to see if he could move things along with VA. The senator’s office sent a letter to VA on the family’s behalf

In October 2009, VA sent a letter saying the application was being considered, and it apologized for the delays.

In November 2009, Virginia Arpaia died at the age of 87.

The family received another letter in December 2009. VA, again apologizing for the delay, said it was still processing the application.

The next month, Sen. Graham again contacted VA, which resulted in another VA letter to the family. Again, it said it’s still processing the claim.

In April 2010, they received another “still processing” letter.

A new letter came in on Oct. 6, 2010.

“We have been notified of the death of Virginia Arpaia… Based on this notification we have stopped processing her claim,” it said.

Woronowich called and was told she could submit a new application for “Accrued Amounts Due a Deceased Beneficiary,” so she did in November 2010.

Three months later, in February 2011, Woronowich called VA to check on the status of the new claim.

“I was told that I would have to wait 120 days. I asked to speak with a supervisor and was told one would call me back,” she said.

No one did.

In March, she said she called again and insisted on speaking to a supervisor. This time she got some news.

“I was told the initial claim had been denied in October 2009,” she said. “The denial letter was sent to my mother – on whose application it stated she had dementia – to an address where she did not live.”

The letter was sent to an address that’s more than 250 miles away from where Virginia Arpaia lived. It was an address never listed on the application or on any other paperwork submitted by Woronowich.

All the other letters on the issue – except for the denial letter – had been sent to Woronowich. She thought that was because she had power of attorney for her mom, and she had presented her power of attorney to VA several times.

But in that same phone call, Woronowich said she was told VA didn’t accept the power of attorney documents she had been submitting for the past two years. That’s right. Two years, and no one told her she wasn’t authorized to work with VA on her mom’s behalf.

“If I wasn’t authorized by the VA to be the power of attorney then why were all of the letters updating me on my mother’s application status sent to me – just not the most important one?” she said.

Woronowich then learned the claim was denied because Virginia Arpaia remarried in 1990, 20 years after her serviceman husband’s death.

The family had no problem accepting that denial. It’s the answer they had been waiting for. The family’s issue is how VA communicated – or didn’t communicate – with the family.

Additionally, Woronowich wants to know why those at VA who kept sending the “still processing” letters seemingly had no idea the claim was denied in October 2009.

And between the date of her mother’s death and when the family learned of the denial in May, why, if the application had been denied, did VA tell Woronowich to start a brand new application for accrued benefits?

“Why? They knew that she had already been denied so there was no point to that – just more needless paperwork,” she said

She also learned that a copy of the denial letter was sent to Sen. Graham’s office.

“He had no authority to receive it,” Woronowich said. “And they can’t say I gave him the authority if they didn’t even acknowledge that I had any power to give my permission [via an unaccepted power of attorney document] to do so.”

“Someone needs to be held accountable for this debacle but they all pass the buck,” she said. “Veterans are aging and their children are trying to handle their affairs. What a sad state of affairs that veterans or relatives of veterans literally die waiting for their cases to be resolved. Our veterans deserve better.”

A fair question, we thought, so we reached out to VA for some answers.

A spokesman said the agency will look into what happened.

“The Veterans Benefits Administration has begun to look into the Arpaia family’s case to determine what, if any benefits are due to the family,” said spokesman Randal Noller. “VA strives to take care of our veterans, their spouses and families. Veterans have earned their benefits, and we’re here to ensure they receive those benefits they so rightly deserve.”

They also deserve answers about communication issues. We’ll let you know what VA finds in the weeks to come.