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Four years ago, at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Cortez, Colo., Marine veteran Teddy Draper Sr. gave a lecture about his experiences as a Navajo code talker during World War II. Navajo code talkers are legendary for their crucial role in preventing interceptions of communications by the Japanese in World War II. Before messages were sent, a code talker would translate them into Navajo and another code talker would translate them back into English. After Draper talked, his friend revealed to the audience that Draper had never received a Purple Heart and had been struggling since 1946 to get disability benefits for his injuries received at Iwo Jima. George Parker, a lawyer in the San Antonio office of Houston-based Bracewell & Patterson, was in the audience that day listening to the lecture with his wife. After the talk, Parker approached Draper and offered to help. “The fact that he had been stymied in his efforts for close to 60 years touched a chord in me,” Parker recalled. “As a labor and employment lawyer, I deal with government agencies a lot, so I thought maybe I can do him some good.” Since September 2002, Parker and a paralegal, Penny Robinson, have logged more than 500 hours on Draper’s case as a pro bono matter for Bracewell. They have reviewed stacks of medical records and collected sworn affidavits from other veterans who witnessed Draper’s injuries at Iwo Jima. Thanks to their efforts, the 81-year-old Draper has been granted full entitlement to $20,000 per year, and received a check for $56,214 for retroactive benefits. He was awarded the Purple Heart by the Marine Corps commandant on Dec. 29, 2003. “Fifty-nine years afterward, my dad finally got his justice,” said Draper’s son, Teddy Jr. “It took good lawyering to do that and George never gave up.” Of the estimated 3,600 Navajos who served during World War II, only a few hundred were code talkers. The code of 38 symbols and 411 ancillary terms was developed by the original 29 Navajos recruited. The complex syntax and tonal qualities of the Navajo language was unbreakable by Japanese linguists trying to decipher battle messages about the time and place of American attacks. Draper was recruited to the task from the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Ariz. He was injured in 1945, on his second day at Iwo Jima, while laying the communication lines that code talkers used to send messages. A grenade exploded, killing the soldier near him and knocking him semi-conscious. The explosion left him with hearing loss, and he filed for benefits in 1946. The Veterans Administration (V.A.) denied his claim for lack of evidence. “The review of his claim was perfunctory,” Parker asserted. His induction record showed perfect hearing, but his discharge revealed a probable hearing loss. “If the person who denied this claim in ’46 had read the file, they couldn’t have claimed no evidence of record.” Larry Clark, a decision review officer in the V.A.’s Phoenix office was assigned to review Draper’s claim in 2000. He speculated that the difficulty stemmed from the age of the claim and that Draper is Navajo. Navajos have a language barrier and are not familiar with the system, Clark said. “A lot of Navajo vets don’t communicate well,” Clark asserted. “They don’t respond to the written communications.” Even for a lawyer, the system was hard to navigate without expertise in the area. “It’s very complicated,” said Parker, who claimed it was even difficult to find a phone number to talk to someone in the V.A. He sought advice from the nonprofit National Veterans Legal Services, and a book, Veterans Benefits Manual, co-authored by its director, Ron Abrams. 51-year dry spell From 1946 to 1997, the V.A. consistently denied Draper’s claims for lack of evidence. In 1989, Draper submitted sworn affidavits from witnesses at Iwo Jima, but his claim was still rejected. Then in 1997, the same claim was resubmitted and this time accepted by the V.A. to establish partial benefits. “It was frustrating,” said Parker, who added that things started happening when the V.A. finally sat up and took notice of their case. “Once they recognized that we had legitimate ground for our appeal, they came forward and in the end did what was right,” he said. The V.A. instituted reforms to help veterans in late 1980s, according to Clark. There is a Court of Veteran Appeals, and decision review officers who have authority to make de novo reviews of the evidence. The V.A. can also seek a medical opinion to try to establish a link between the injury and the veteran’s service, before it denies a claim. “We try to look for ways to grant the claim,” said Clark, who added that in 30 years of processing claims, Parker is the first pro bono lawyer he encountered. “I was really impressed with Parker,” Clark said. “He spent more time than any other attorney I’m aware of.” The breakthrough in Draper’s case finally came in January 2003 when Parker presented evidence that Draper’s injuries were service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of Draper’s 12 children, who holds a doctorate in psychology, helped Parker establish evidence of PTSD. A V.A. psychiatrist also examined him and agreed with the PTSD diagnosis. Combined with his hearing loss, Draper was awarded full benefits. The secrecy of the Navajo code was declassified in 1968, but for the Draper family, the emotional journey of working with Parker lifted a veil of mystery that surrounded their father’s life. The risks their father took, like galloping on horseback in two feet of snow or lining up bullets on his window, finally made sense as PTSD. “In the end it was a great journey and justice was served for my dad and for his family,” said Teddy Draper Jr. “He is finally home from Iwo Jima.” McAree’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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