12 On Your Side Special Assignment: Dead Vet Walking

By: Elizabeth Owens Email
By: Elizabeth Owens Email

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, May 17, 2012

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Two tours in Vietnam didn't kill Marine Cpl. Tony Johnson, but the Department of Veterans Affairs did -- at least on paper.

Johnson is upset, especially for a dead man.

"March 7th, 2012, is the date that the VA has finally killed me," the former Marine said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs sent him a letter addressed to his ex wife on March 26. The letter contained condolences to his ex-wife for Johnson's recent death.

"Dear Cheryl Johnson, we are sorry to learn about the death of Anthony Johnson," he read to News 12.

Johnson went straight to the VA and, sure enough, records showed he was a dead man. In his file, the VA listed his date of death as March 7, 2012.

"At first, I'm going oh boy, the VA screwed up this time," the Vietnam veteran said.

Things became even more "screwed up" the next day when Johnson opened a second letter addressed to his ex-wife for widow's pay.

"The VA says they'll get it straightened out as fast as they can, but I'm the one suffering for what appears to be a Veterans Administration error," he said.

No sooner had Johnson sent the widow's check back to the VA when he discovered the government had deposited $3,354 into his personal bank account.

"That's a lot of money! There are veterans living under bridges that don't have 33 cents," he said.

Johnson also worried how his alleged death might affect his benefits. He is 100 percent disabled, mostly due to severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Right now I can't tell you a 100 percent why that happened," said Al Bocchiccio, regional director of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

VA officials say most likely someone in their office typed something wrong into a computer. They also think they may have received a first notice of death, although they can't find one.

A first notice of death, or FNOD, comes when a veteran dies and a loved one fills out an application or calls for death benefits. A FNOD can also be be generated through Social Security or the prison system when a veteran passes away.

"Don't have any proof that somebody sent in anything that said Mr. Johnson has passed away on this date or called," Bocchiccio said.

He says he doesn't have proof because they can't find a FNOD for Johnson.

News 12's Elizabeth Owens: "My name is Elizabeth Owens. I'm with News 12. Are you aware your ex-husband is alive?"
Cheryl Johnson: "Oh, that stupid ... you know what? Let me tell you something. I didn't feel out any papers to have him declared dead."

She told News 12 she didn't file any paperwork to collect widow's pay, regardless of her feelings towards her ex-husband.

"I wish he would die and leave me alone," she said.

Johnson's problems became an even bigger nightmare when he received a letter from the VA's Debt Management Center. The letter states that he owes them nearly $7,000. It also stated that the VA would be withholding the money from his monthly benefits until the debt was paid.

The VA told News 12 On Your Side that Johnson owes them money because he wrongfully collected spousal benefits since his divorce two years ago. However, Johnson says he told the VA about the divorce years ago and an adjustment was made.

Johnson says he has proof that the VA knew about his divorce and that adjustments with his benefits were made after it. News 12 obtained a copy of letter from the VA to Johnson that shows were they removed his spousal benefits in April of 2010. He is appealing the debt.

Johnson can't help but wonder if the VA didn't catch the transaction that lead to his erroneous death, then how many others go unnoticed?

"It's sad this could happen to anybody. It's ridiculous," he said.

Bocchiccio told News 12 On Your Side that it does happen occasionally.

"Sometimes, it happens," he said.

VA officials say they plan on implementing new software in June that would prevent erroneous deaths in their system.

"When I was in Vietnam, I used to tell my troops because I was a squad leader that they had to take care of one another. That's what the VA's got to do, take care of us," Johnson said.

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