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WWII vet: Wounded Marine's story 'broke my heart'

  • Story Highlights
  • Medal of Honor recipient: I was outraged by lack of care for a wounded Marine
  • Ty Ziegel was badly wounded in Iraq and had to fight VA for benefits
  • Thousands of CNN viewers and users responded to initial story
  • Ziegel: Thank you for your response
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By Emily Probst and Wayne Drash
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A World War II Medal of Honor recipient couldn't believe it when he learned about a Marine who was severely disfigured by a suicide bomber in Iraq and then had to fight the Department of Veterans Affairs to get full disability benefits.


Ty Ziegel, a Marine, was badly wounded in Iraq. He battled the VA over disability benefits when he returned.

Hershel "Woody" Williams -- who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor on Iwo Jima in 1945 -- was one of thousands of CNN viewers and users to express outrage over the struggle of Marine Sgt. Ty Ziegel, 25, who lost part of his skull, half of his left arm and suffered multiple other injuries in the bombing just three days before Christmas 2004. His story was first broadcast on CNN three weeks ago.

The VA's initial assessment of Ziegel's disabilities shocked him -- from facial disfigurement rated at 80 percent to a mere 10 percent for his head trauma.

On top of that, he got nothing for his left lobe brain injury, right eye blindness and jaw fracture. It was only after he pressed the office of then-VA Secretary Jim Nicholson that he got compensation for having a traumatic brain injury and other severe injuries. Video Watch Ziegel display his model skull »

"For him to have to go through what he did broke my heart," Williams told CNN. "It is happening far too often."

Williams, an 84-year-old retired chief warrant officer from Ona, West Virginia, is one of the 107 living recipients of the Medal of Honor.

He won the award for "his unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance" that helped neutralize "one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment," his Medal of Honor citation reads.

After the war, he served in the VA for 33 years -- and when he hears stories like Ziegel's, he finds it appalling. "Our Congress, nor our Department of Veterans Affairs, neither were remotely prepared for that kind of case," he said. Impact Your World: How to help war veterans

He was so moved by Ziegel's story he felt compelled to reach out, sending Ziegel his military "challenge" coin, decorated with the Marine Corps emblem on the face and the Purple Heart with his signature on the back.

Why did he do it?

"I appreciated his service to our country, very, very much ... and I appreciated his tenacity, so others had a role model to follow. I said to him on the phone, 'You are a role model,'" Williams explained. Photo See photos of Iraq war heroes »

Ziegel -- who can no longer hold a steady job because his wounds are so severe -- was thrilled by the simple gesture of a fellow Marine.

"It's awesome," he said. "It's an honor to have a man of his stature -- a Medal of Honor winner nonetheless -- even recognize me. It's an honor and then some."

Ziegel also said he was overwhelmed by the response to his story, which brought a flood of phone calls, letters, e-mails and MySpace messages. He was even contacted by campaign staffers for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico. Richardson's campaign staffers offered to help find Ziegel the resources for reconstructive surgery, an offer Ziegel has yet to take them up on.

"It's been really good to hear that they saw the story and care enough to want to help," Ziegel said.

Ziegel now takes each day one at a time. He depends on his disability check to support his small-town lifestyle in Washington, Illinois. That's why it was so astonishing initially when the VA slighted him, awarding him just under $2,700 a month in compensation -- far from the $4,000 a month he expected.

Less than 48 hours after Ziegel told his story to CNN, the VA acted on his case, increasing his compensation significantly.

Now, others want to make sure the VA system changes. A presidential commission last July called for a complete overhaul of the 62-year-old disability ratings system. And just this week, veterans' issues were front and center on Capitol Hill as Senate confirmation hearings began for President Bush's nominee for VA secretary, Dr. James Peake.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who is the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, pushed the nominee to make fixing the disability ratings system one of his highest priorities.

"It is no exaggeration to say that the VA's current compensation system is broken," Akaka said.

Rep. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat, called Ziegel's fight with the VA "infuriating."

Donnelly, who is on the House Committee for Veterans Affairs, is pushing legislation that would give wounded veterans an instant disability rating of 30 percent within 30 days of discharge. This temporary rating would mean more money and it would be adjusted once a more comprehensive assessment could be made.


"Let's give the benefit of the doubt to the veteran," Donnelly said.

Marines Williams and Ziegel remain committed to change -- or as Ziegel likes to say, "Semper Fi." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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