VA to restore a veteran’s benefits after mistaking his death

Mario Salvi did not wait to be drafted to go to war.

“When I volunteered, I volunteered to help my country,” Mario said. “I didn’t do it for myself because i thought the need was there.”

Mario was just a kid when he served under Gen. George Patton in France. He said the critical part of the story, is that he is here to tell it.

Veteran Mario Salvi at a younger age. (Credit: WINK News)
Veteran Mario Salvi at a younger age. (Credit: Savli family)

Mario was wounded on April 6, 1945. He spent six months in the hospital, which he said was a nightmare.

When Mario’s wife, Geraldine, died in January, he followed the law and reported it to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs. The VA did not respond until May, where it sent a letter to his wife, offering her condolences on Mario’s death.

To make matters worse, the government reached into Mario’s bank account and confiscated his benefits. It is money Mario, 93 years old, relies on to live. He said his account is overdrawn.

Mario’s daughter, Deborah Kopko, asked WINK News to get involved. She was devastated when she heard Mario’s problem and did not know where to turn. We aired Mario’s story on television and online. The response has been overwhelming.

Two Florida senators and Mario’s congressperson are getting results. His benefits will be restored as soon as Friday. Deborah believes the massive outpouring of support and anger has gotten people’s attention.

“Maybe because the time of year, the 4th of July, everybody feels patriotic,” Deborah said. “That’s why everyone is coming together because he’s a veteran and they want to help the veteran.”

“It’s wonderful,” Mario said. “People are so kind. Very nice.”

Mario told us he went from grieving the loss of his wife and best friend, to afraid of what might go wrong next.

“Now, all I want is to correct all the problems I incurred while I was on the battlefield,” Mario said. “That’s all and now what’s happened now is hard to take.”

But now, Mario has hope he will survive another emotional trauma. He said the credit belongs to WINK News viewers, social media friends and followers for seeing his story and demanding action.

“Now we ask to the VA to take on the job and do their job,” Mario said. “I don’t think that’s asking too much.”

Reaction to the Mario Salvi’s story

Since we aired this story on Tuesday, tens of thousands of people have watched it on social media, made comments and shared it. It is one of the top stories on the WINK News app. The story is gaining attention across the country as people from every state viewed the piece about Mario.

Over the phone, Rhonda Tack, who is from Pennsylvania, talked about her father, Homer, who served during the Vietnam War in the Navy. He is now declared dead.

It happened in February when it was his wife who passed away, which is the same thing that happened to Mario. Homer, 72 years old, is still dealing with repercussions with only a simple explanation.

“Just that it was an erroneous mistake,” Rhonda said, “and a wrong strike of the key.”

After numerous phone calls, Homer got his benefits back in April, but his status has not changed.

“They said they would correct it,” Rhonda said, “once the review board reviews his case.”

That process can take up to six months. A former VA employee in Nashville, who only wanted to be identified as “Kelly,” said this is not uncommon.

“I’d get these calls two or three times a month where this was happening to veterans,” Kelly said.

Working there in 2016 and 2017, Kelly said the VA is understaffed, undertrained and rushed through a mass of daily phone calls.

“Up until recently, they had a call time and you had seven minutes per caller and you were graded on it,” Kelly said.

The process caused more mistakes and less verification.

“They’ve got 1.5 million veterans at any given time that they’re working with,” Kelly said. “It’s constant back to back to back. They don’t have time to wait for all this stuff.”

We reached out to the VA but still have not gotten a response. We have also submitted a FOIA request to find out how often this situation happens.

In the meantime, people like Christy-Lee Iwanow are reaching out to offer help.

“Knowing that these men and woman have served for us,” Iwanow said, “they should really be our front runners and always be taken care of first.”

Writer:Michael Mora
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