WASHINGTON — The U.S. Coast Guard sent the first batch of veterans' discharge papers Friday to a dozen former sailors in the World War II Merchant Marine, marking a final rite of passage for a group that has struggled four decades for recognition.
Since the Defense Department yielded to judicial pressure in January and granted veterans' status to the wartime merchant sailors, the Coast Guard has been deluged with more than 20,000 applications from seamen seeking certification.
The discharge papers hold largely a symbolic value, one that represents a victory over some distorted labels. "This is vindication for all the merchant seamen who served in that war," said Leonard Moura of Norwich, Conn., who will be among the first merchant seamen to get certificates of discharge in the mail next week.
"All we got was a bum rap and a lot of snide remarks, and we didn't deserve that. We deserved better," said the 64-year-old Moura, who comes from a family of merchant sailors.
May Affect Benefit Programs
However, it remains to be seen what impact the largest influx of new veterans since the Vietnam War will have on already strained veterans' benefit programs.
The volume of inquiries from merchant mariners to the Coast Guard already has surpassed all expectations and box loads more are arriving every day. "We're just amazed by the response," said the Coast Guard's Frank Flyntz, who heads a five-person staff reviewing the requests.
Applicants who served on the seas between Dec. 7, 1941, and Aug. 15, 1945, will receive discharge papers, making them eligible for disability compensation, medical treatment, home loan guarantees, military burial and other VA benefits. Information on applications is available from local Veterans Administration offices.
VA officials have not been able to estimate what increased demand on their services the new veterans--only a tiny fraction of all veterans--may produce. "We're keeping a close eye" on the influx, VA spokesman Bonner Day said.
Concern for Asbestos Exposure
Some suggest that many World War II merchant seamen--perhaps 10%--may need disability compensation or medical treatment because of their exposure to asbestos, a carcinogen widely used as piping insulation on ships.
After years of resistance, the Defense Department agreed to recognize the World War II merchant seamen two months ago after a federal court judge ruled that the department had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in denying recognition.
U.S. District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer deemed baseless several lingering distortions about the Mechant Marines' service, among them that they were highly paid and saw little combat. Their casualty rate was equaled only by the Marines among the military branches in World War II.