Forty years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War may finally be ending for Larry Stigen.
It took more than three decades after a bloody fire fight near the Cambodian border before Stigen was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that includes flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.
It took several years after that, a host of appeals, and a team of lawyers working on his case for free before the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs relented and granted him disability benefits for the trauma he suffered.
At 65, Stigen, of Ramsey, remains a fragile man, a reluctant participant still wrestling with what happened in May of 1969.
“It haunts me to this day and now that paper says it’s honorable,” he said.
Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong on April 30, 1975, marking the end of the Vietnam War. Four decades later, hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans like Stigen are filing claims for disability benefits. Compensation for claims more than doubled between 2003 and 2012 to $19.7 billion, VA statistics show.
Since 1993 more than 185,000 Vietnam veterans have received disability benefits for PTSD, which has only been recognized as a mental disorder since 1980. Of those, almost a third were added after 2010 when the VA stopped requiring veterans to document specific traumatic events.
No one ever doubted what Stigen experienced. It’s what he did afterward that kept coming back to punish him.
Fire Support Base Jamie
Stigen was 18 years old in 1969 when he enlisted in the Army and was shipped to Vietnam. At 5-foot-4, he often was assigned to crawl into underground tunnels searching for the enemy.
His unit was operating out of Fire Support Base Jamie, accessible only by helicopter and surrounded by an earthen berm, concertina barbed wire, and Claymore mines.
Bases like Jamie provided artillery support for the infantry’s missions in an area where North Vietnamese troops moved aggressively along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Just after midnight on May 12, 1969, the North Vietnamese Army attacked. They poured through the barbed wire, overran the berm, and surrounded a bunker. Stigen and a dozen others fought them off with hand grenades and M16 rifles. Sometime in the night, Stigen’s left eardrum was punctured by an explosion. A typewritten “Operations Summary” of the battle listed 55 enemy killed. Seven U.S. soldiers, including two of Stigen’s close friends, died and 41 were wounded.
“I hated it. I hated it because I know that I killed people out there and I know I killed people afterward because I was supposed to do that,” he said.
That morning, his unit was ordered to carry the enemy bodies and body parts to an open pit. Then he learned of his job for the coming night: to man a listening post concealed in the jungle outside the base.
A listening post for a man who could not hear? It would put everyone in danger, Stigen argued. His commanding officer repeated the order.
Stigen made a decision that would change his life. Still bleeding from his left ear, he put his gun down and got on a chopper.
“I never went back,” he said.
As a testament to the chaos of the place and time, he wasn’t reported AWOL until July. By then he had made his way to Saigon where someone wrote emergency leave papers and had sent him back to the U.S.
Back home, he picked up odd jobs. He lost his right hand in a machine accident.
In 1973, he was given a “less than honorable discharge.” The type of discharge, known at the time as “undesirable,” meant he was ineligible for VA benefits and branded in a way that would haunt him for years.
He kept his story to himself, even as he married and had children. In and out of small-time trouble for years, he encountered a psychiatrist after a stint in jail. The two met off and on for several years and the doctor suggested that Stigen had an anxiety disorder. Stigen had told the doctor he was in Vietnam but little else.
In 2006, he finally disclosed the story of what had happened at Jamie. The psychiatrist diagnosed Stigen’s PTSD.
“I didn’t want him digging and finding that I was undesirable. … I wasn’t undesirable,” he said. “I did what I had to do to survive.”
Armed with the new information, Stigen filed a claim for benefits with the VA and a claim with the Army to upgrade his discharge. Both were rejected. In late 2007, Stigen met Patrick Burns, a former military lawyer who was volunteering at a local American Legion. Burns spoke with a contact at the Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron, who approached John Satorius, a senior corporate lawyer and Vietnam veteran, to see if he would be interested in helping.
Satorius’ pro bono work usually was limited to homeless youth, immigrant education and conservation. But Satorius had served on a nearby fire base in the same division as Stigen. He had heard about the attack on Jamie.
“When I realized how close in time and space we were,” Satorius said, “it hit me in the gut. It’s almost like 40 years later he was my buddy in the next foxhole. I had to step up and work on this.”
Satorius knew that the appeals team would need someone with more military law experience, particularly with PTSD claims. John Degnan, another Vietnam veteran at the Minneapolis firm Briggs & Morgan, was recruited. Patrick Mahlberg, an associate with Fredrikson & Byron, also agreed to assist.
Claims filed, claims denied
In 2012, frustrated with continual rejections and delays with the VA appeal, the team recruited Virgil Bradley, an Iraq war veteran, to lead another appeal to upgrade Stigen’s discharge, which would restore his honor and entitle him to VA benefits. That appeal was denied in 2013.
Seven years into it, the VA still refused to consider both the opinion of Stigen’s psychiatrist and evidence of his PTSD that Army medics had recorded in his medical record a few weeks after the battle.
The team sought help from a representative of the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs, who ultimately succeeded in navigating the final twists and turns of the process.
The VA now acknowledges that Stigen is entitled to mental health treatment and disability benefits due to PTSD. Still, the bad discharge hangs over him. The team is hoping Stigen’s case will be bolstered by a 2014 order by that directs military review boards to consider PTSD in veterans’ petitions for discharge upgrades.
Stigen remains reluctant to have his story singled out, but said the lesson is to refuse to give up, particularly for soldiers of his era who came home with the stigma of an unpopular war.
“There is help for the Vietnam veterans but they’ve got to pick the phone up,” he said. “I see them on the street. I feel sorry for these guys because I was in the same boat.”