Six decades later, Korean War wounds remain

2013-10-26T22:43:00Z 2013-11-08T19:08:04Z Six decades later, Korean War wounds remainVanessa Renderman vanessa.renderman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3244 nwitimes.com

Charles "Mike" Mikovetz wears two pairs of socks to keep his feet warm. Even in the summer.

He drags a fold-up stool with him when he leaves the house so he has a place to sit when his feet go numb after two or three minutes of standing. And he wears a support belt to brace his back.

The 81-year-old Crown Point man traces today's health problems to injuries he suffered more than six decades ago while serving in the Korean War.

He wrecked his back when, while patrolling, his Jeep flipped and pinned him to the ground. Nerve damage crept down to his feet. And, like many of his comrades, he suffered from frostbite brought on by extreme cold.

As he and his fellow Korean War veterans mark 60 years since the end of the war, many are now octogenarians feeling the long-term health effects of combat. Mikovetz, who received a Purple Heart, among other medals, is among those still waiting for compensation on his injuries.

He filed a claim about a year ago, but he has heard stories of Korean War and World War II vets' claims caught up in so much red tape that they die before seeing a penny.

His wife of 61 years, Irene Mikovetz, said she tells him to give up, that he's wasting his time trying to get compensated.

The Griffith-raised veteran waited so long to file a claim because he wanted work. When he returned from the war and talked about getting a job in a steel mill, friends warned him the mills wouldn't hire someone with an injury, he said.

His service records were among millions destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center near St. Louis, which added a snag to his request. Now, his claim is being processed, and he gets regular letters asking him to be patient.

Out in the cold

Frigid weather accounted for 16 percent of Army nonbattle injuries in the Korean War, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Korean War used Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units that served as hospitals in combat areas. But battlefield conditions prohibited many service members from obtaining medical treatment for their cold weather injuries, according to the department.

"Korea in winter is a nightmare," Mikovetz said.

When they first arrived in Inchon Harbor in Korea, he and his comrades climbed over the side of the ship and into smaller boats that shuttled them to shore. They waited overnight in the severe cold, still wearing summer-issue fatigues.

"I didn't care where I was going," he said. "We wanted warm clothes to wear. We didn't realize Korea was going to be that cold. It's worse than anything around here."

Those cold-weather injuries make veterans more susceptible to peripheral neuropathy, skin cancer in frostbite scars, cold sensitization, fallen arches and arthritis in affected areas, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"These cold-related problems may worsen as veterans grow older and develop complicating conditions such as diabetes and peripheral vascular disease, which place them at higher risk for late amputations," the department states.

Mikovetz had surgery on his spine at the Mayo Clinic. The pain still limits him, he said. 

Support

He's a member of a support group for Korean War vets. They meet monthly at the Gary Area Vets Center in Crown Point.

Tina Austin, a social worker there, runs the group. Anyone interested in joining can call her at (219) 736-5633.

"They're a wonderful group of men," she said.

Topics vary. Sometimes they talk about their war memories. They've talked about the impact of the government shutdown, of what life was like before the war and what it's like growing old, she said.

They learn how to share their war stories with family. Some have grandchildren who don't know they served in the war or even what the Korean War was, she said.

"The topic changes based on their interest," she said.

Access to support and treatment

Not all vets are within driving range of a support group or veterans hospital.

Some live hundreds of miles from the nearest clinic, let alone a full veterans hospital, said Ted Barker, administrator of the Dallas-based nonprofit Korean War Project, which he and his brother Hal Barker founded.

Black veterans have disproportionate access to care and transportation, he said.

"It's amazing how many men have not availed themselves to the services of Veterans Services," Barker said. "Some are in their 80s, and it's the first time seeking care. A lot had shrapnel or metal pieces they continue to carry them today."

Aside from extreme cold, concussion injuries from artillery and mortar created havoc on a lot of men's health, he said.

"There's a whole range of issues," he said.

More than 100,000 military members were exposed to flea and rat bites, leading to hantavirus, he said.

And post traumatic stress disorder was handled differently 60 years ago.

"They called it shell shock," Barker said. "It's a career-ender when you come down to it, if you report it. Sixty years ago, if you came in with battle fatigue, they'd say, 'Get over it.'"

Vets who do seek care often face long waits because the VA is overwhelmed and behind on claims, Barker said.

It can take months or years for claims to be processed. The recent government shutdown disrupted the process, causing even more of a setback, he said.

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