He was walking up the handicapped ramp at Haddad Riverfront Park following the 21-gun salute and playing of taps at the end of the 2015 Veterans Day Program. I watched Sergeant Lewis stop to rest on a stone bench and asked if he would be willing to share his story of being a P.O.W. during the Korean War.
He looked at me, but didn’t speak.
In fact, Lewis couldn’t speak until he drew an inhaler out of his pocket, and pumped some medication into his oxygen-deprived lungs. Lewis breathed as deeply as he could, explaining with hesitant whispers, that he had emphysema so it was difficult to catch his breath.
Lewis held the inhaler in his hand telling me that what he really needs is a portable oxygen concentrator so he can breathe more easily when he’s away from home and can’t use a bulky nebulizer.
The Purple Heart veteran says he’s tried to get an O2 concentrator through his military medical benefits, but has been denied because VA doctors want “proof” he needs one.
This “need for proof” is reminiscent of Lee’s extended battle to be recognized as a prisoner of war and the long-delayed acknowledgement that he deserved to receive a Purple Heart.
When Lewis initially tried to claim his P.O.W. benefits, following his service in both Korea and Vietnam, he was told there was no official record in the military’s computer system to prove he’d been captured, escaped, and captured again during the Korean conflict.
Turns out, Lewis’ name was written in the margins of Korean War records along with the names of other POW’s who had died while in captivity.
Once the records were corrected to show Lewis was still living, he was granted his P.O.W. status and finally given his well-deserved Purple Heart in September of this year.
Now Lewis is being asked to produce proof once again that he deserves the P.O.W benefits he earned while serving as a member of the 92nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion.
This current fight creates a dilemma for Lewis who serves as the head of West Virginia’s chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War. His assignment is to help former P.O.W’s and their families get the benefits they deserve.
Can you imagine how Lewis feels when he arrives at a meeting, barely able to speak because he can’t catch his breath?
Lewis describes it this way, “What am I supposed to tell them when I can’t get the equipment I need to help me breathe?”
It took Sergeant Willie J. Lewis 62-years to get his well-deserved Purple Heart. I don’t think it should take another minute for him to get a portable oxygen concentrator so he can breathe with ease and help other ex-P.O.W.’s get the assistance they need to survive and thrive.