It was 1967, and the war in Vietnam was in full swing. At 21 years old, Jose Badillo-Bonilla was a part-time electrical engineering student at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez trying to complete his degree. But that summer, the U.S. government changed his life forever by calling his selective service number.

Badillo-Bonilla was drafted into the Army and shipped off for boot camp. After completing basic training and infantry school, he joined the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Lewis, Washington. His unit soon received its orders and, in March 1968, embarked on a yearlong deployment to Dầu Tiếng in southeastern Vietnam.

In country, Badillo-Bonilla conducted patrols and provided base security. Mortar and rocket attacks often barraged the base camp. In late fall 1968, one such air assault struck nearby.

“The blast knocked me over, and I took shrapnel to my head and shoulders,” Badillo-Bonilla said. “Fortunately, I was not gravely hurt and medevaced to safety.”

Army Spc. Jose Badillo-Bonilla at Dầu Tiếng Base Camp in southeastern Vietnam (1968).

Badillo-Bonilla was awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries and healed up at the local Army infirmary. Upon recovering, he reunited with his unit to finish his deployment before returning to the U.S. in March 1969. A few months later, he completed his terms of military service and went back home to his family in Puerto Rico.

War causes wounds that last beyond the battlefield, and Badillo-Bonilla didn’t want his combat experience to affect the rest of his life and tried his utmost to leave the unpopular war behind him. When he first returned, he only filed for disability compensation for hearing loss. He used his education benefits to finish his degree and started a successful air conditioning and electrical repair company, which he ran until his retirement a few years ago.

For the most part, Badillo-Bonilla wanted nothing to do with the Department of Veterans Affairs and rarely, if ever, engaged with it. He became a member of DAV based on his service-connected hearing loss but had never considered filing any additional disability claims despite being a Purple Heart recipient.

Though he never expressed it, his family knew he struggled with his experience from Vietnam and that he was not accessing all of his earned benefits. They heard about a local DAV information seminar to help veterans with their benefits, but he was reluctant to go. At the urging of his wife and youngest son, he decided to attend.

While there, he learned about the additional benefits he might qualify for and how DAV could assist. He also met local benefits advocates, Angel Esribano and Alex Martinez, who convinced Badillo-Bonilla to sign up and have DAV represent him in filing additional disability compensation.

“Jose was unaware of the disability claims he could file that were related to the injuries that he received his Purple Heart for or health conditions related to toxic exposure from Agent Orange,” Martinez said. “He had sacrificed so much in service to his country and had gone decades without these earned benefits. It was great to help guide him and get everything he and his family deserved.”

Alex Martinez, DAV benefits advocate

Besides assisting Badillo-Bonilla with disability compensation, Martinez helped enroll him for VA health care. Badillo-Bonilla already had private health insurance, but Martinez informed him how the VA could supplement his health care. Now, Badillo-Bonilla chooses to use the VA for his prescription medications and appointments related to his service-connected conditions.

“When I finally decided to use [the] VA again, I noticed how it had changed dramatically from when I got out of the Army after Vietnam,” Badillo-Bonilla said. “The care is great, and the staff treats me well. I am very pleased with the changes and grateful to DAV for all the help they have provided me and my family.”

“Jose’s story is all too common,” said DAV National Service Director Jim Marszalek. “Veterans benefits are not automatic. It’s up to veterans and their families to pursue them. It does not matter how long a veteran has been out of the military; DAV’s benefits advocates are experts and will help our nation’s heroes get what they have rightfully earned.”