BARTOW — Mike Mason knew the Vietnam veteran’s widow deserved better.
Mason, Polk County’s manager of Veteran Services, met the woman when she came into his office hoping to receive federal Veterans Affairs benefits. Her husband had died of a heart attack 10 years earlier, and she thought his death might have been linked to his service-related disability.
The veteran had been diagnosed with ischemic heart disease, and his exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam made it a service-connected condition. The out-of-state death certificate, however, did not mention that underlying illness.
As a result, the woman didn’t apply for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.
“This lady lived for 10 years on a shoestring, just barely getting by,” Mason said.
Mason and his staff helped the woman file a new claim with support from a local doctor, and eventually she received a bank deposit of about $29,000 from the VA to cover her decade of missed benefits.
But Mason didn’t stop there.
He began a two-year campaign that led to a revision in Florida’s death certificate process. An electronic form used by funeral directors was modified in February to add information about health conditions related to military service, making it easier for family members of veterans to file claims for benefits.
Florida is the first state to gather information about veterans’ service-related health conditions and share it with doctors before death certificates are issued, say Mason and others involved with the policy.