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Hartford - A Purple Heart recipient from Connecticut who was wounded in the Vietnam War sued the Army on Thursday, saying he's wrongly being denied health care benefits.
Lawyers for William Dolphin, 64, of West Haven filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Haven in an attempt to upgrade his discharge status and get benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dolphin was given a bad conduct discharge in 1974 after being charged with going absent without leave, or AWOL. He didn't realize the Army considered him AWOL after he left a New York City hospital to convalesce at home while suffering from memory loss, depression and trouble concentrating, according to the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which is representing Dolphin.
Dolphin has been overwhelmed by medical bills and can't afford regular care for his conditions, while the bad conduct discharge has prevented him from receiving VA care, his lawyers say. He has asked Army officials to upgrade his discharge status, but they have refused.
"I have paid for nearly 40 years for something I didn't do," Dolphin said in a statement released by the Yale clinic. "I wasn't trying to run away from serving in Vietnam - I fought for my country and risked my life for the men I served with. Now all I ask is for some basic medical care for my injuries."
An Army spokesman declined to comment, citing military policy on pending litigation.
Dolphin suffered head, knee and back injuries in an explosion during combat in the Mekong Delta in 1968 and was awarded the Purple Heart, the lawsuit said. He was left with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
After he was injured, the Army sent him to hospitals in Japan, Alaska and New York City. While he was in the hospitals, the Army informed his mother that he had died and presented her with his Purple Heart, the lawsuit said. Army officials didn't correct the mistake until a month later, the suit said.
While at the St. Albans hospital in Queens, N.Y., Dolphin recalled being told by hospital staff that he could go home on convalescent leave. In 1974, FBI agents arrested him at his home in New Haven on AWOL charges.
Dolphin, on the advice of a military lawyer, pleaded guilty to the charges and was given a bad conduct discharge, despite military doctors having diagnosed him with several physical and psychological problems, the lawsuit said.
"There is evidence that this Purple Heart recipient left a military hospital in a state of extreme confusion, not realizing the Army considered him AWOL or, at times, that he had even served in the Army," said Laura Keay, a law student intern at the Yale clinic. "An honorable discharge would enable Mr. Dolphin to obtain VA health care for the combat-related injuries from which he still suffers to this day, and would recognize his heroic service to the United States."