'I'm not dead,' Vietnam veteran says after VA declares he is
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: March 10, 2018
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — The Department of Veterans Affairs said Charles Covell was dead.
Now, the Vietnam veteran and retired U.S. Postal Service worker is hoping to be resurrected soon.
"It's not very nice to kill me," Covell, 81, said from his Fayetteville home this week, where he is very much alive.
Covell is one of hundreds of veterans each year who have had their VA benefits erroneously suspended.
Many of the mistakes are caused by information reported by the Social Security Administration, according to a VA spokesman. The VA works with that agency to prevent overpayment by matching death records to a VA database.
Between October 2016 and September 2017, the VA suspended benefits for 105,529 beneficiaries who were identified as having died, according to the VA. Of those, 245 beneficiaries were later found to have been erroneously included among the suspensions.
"That equates to a 99.77 percent accuracy rate," the VA spokesman said. "While the error rates are small, they are still unacceptable, and VA has taken steps to improve our processes."
Those steps include an automatic notification letter to the beneficiary's last known address.
"This letter provides notice that VA will take action to terminate benefits if the beneficiary does not contact VA regarding an error," the spokesman said.
Covell's "death" came as a surprise to him and his wife, who first noticed something was wrong late last month.
The couple never received a letter, they said. Instead, Marcie Covell realized something was wrong when a monthly disability payment from the VA was not deposited into the couple's bank account.
Charles Covell – who spent a combined 12 years in the Army and served with the 82nd Airborne Division and 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg – is 100 percent disabled based on the VA's metrics.
Eventually, she called the VA and learned that someone filed a death certificate for her husband in January.
Covell chuckled at the idea of his passing. More than 50 years earlier, he had survived a Viet Cong ambush in Vietnam and was honored for heroics during the battle. But years later, it was a paperwork mistake that felled him.
The thought of it all brought a smile to the veteran's face. Because this isn't the first time Charles Covell was a victim of a paperwork error.
According to a 2006 article in The Fayetteville Observer, Covell waited more than four decades for the valor medal he earned in Vietnam after the original paperwork was lost.
He received the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in a ceremony that year, recognizing heroics that took place in 1965.
As a staff sergeant in Vietnam, Covell was a demolitions engineer on a Special Forces team working along the Cambodian border.
During a mission in Tay Ninh province, about 60 miles northwest of Saigon, in April 1965, the Special Forces team and their Vietnamese allies were ambushed by Viet Cong fighters.
According to an Army account of the battle, Covell's unit became pinned down by intense fire from rifles, automatic weapons and grenades.
What would happen next would earn the soldier a Bronze Star Medal with Valor.
"Sgt. Covell voluntarily remained in an exposed position in an open rice field to advise, adjust supporting fire and assist as needed," a citation for the medal reads. "After the unit sustained 10 casualties, including three leaders, he again continued to voluntarily expose himself to accurate sniper fire as he administered first aid to the wounded."
Covell then directed a helicopter into position to evacuate the dead and wounded and helped load the casualties into the aircraft.
Then, the soldier again risked his life. This time, to save his Vietnamese allies.
With an American airstrike incoming, Covell ran through enemy fire to reach a Vietnamese platoon that had not received notice of the pending strike.
"They were going to take off, go out and confront the enemy across this field, and we couldn't stop them," he said. "We had the airstrike right where they were going."
Covell was able to stop the platoon from advancing onto the strike target.
"It was scary after it was over," he told the Observer in 2006. "You don't think too much about that stuff when you are really trying to get something accomplished."
Now in 2018, Covell said his fight for survival is a lot less harrowing.
"I'm under the assumption it will be taken care of very soon," he said.
But the ordeal hasn't been without inconvenience.
Originally, VA officials told Covell he would have to take his birth certificate, Social Security card and DD2014 in person to a VA office in Winston-Salem.
Then, they told him and his wife that they would need to send those documents to another VA facility in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, the Covells picked apart their Fayetteville home looking for the documents. Boxes of paperwork covered a coffee table in their living room. And eventually Covell had to send off to his native Michigan to get a copy of his birth certificate.
Their luck changed when they visited the Cumberland County Veterans Services office in downtown Fayetteville.
There, Robert Shelly took up the case on their behalf.
"He called and called and called," Covell said. "And he finally got a hold of a woman. And he explained everything to them."
"'You say he's dead,'" Charles Covell said, repeating the conversation between Shelly and VA officials. "'He's standing next to me. He's definitely alive... How can I bring him back to life?'"
Shelly said Covell's case was a first for him as a veteran service officer. He's worked for Cumberland County for four years but has worked with veterans all his life.
"I've never worked with a veteran before that this has happened to," Shelly said. "But I've heard that this has happened."
The problem, Shelly said, came down to a clerical error.
The VA, he said, confused Fayetteville's Charles Covell with the late Charles Covell from New York.
Charles Robert Covell is alive and well in Fayetteville.
But the Rev. Charles R. Covell of Clinton, New York, died in September of 2011, according to an obituary published in the Observer-Dispatch, a newspaper based in Utica, New York.
Aside from a name, the two men had other things in common.
The late Charles R. Covell was also a paratrooper, serving in the Korean War with the Army's 11th Airborne Division.
A VA spokesperson said the administration works diligently to restore benefits as quickly as possible when such mistakes are made.
The issue is not a new one for the VA.
Between 2011 and 2015, the VA cut off benefits for more than two million beneficiaries who were reported dead by the Social Security Administration. Approximately 4,000 of those veterans had their benefits cut off due to erroneous death notices.
Fayetteville's Charles Covell said he's happy that he's coming back to life. He thanks Shelly for his efforts and said U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson's office has promised to try to expedite the VA paperwork needed to fix the error.
"It's not a thing they can sit on," Marcie Covell said, referencing the missed disability payment. "It's a problem. If it goes much longer, it will be a bigger problem."
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