Phlebitis put Vincent Derize in the hospital twice, and his throbbing feet keep him awake nights. So do Gerald Foley’s. He walks with a cane and wears special shoes.
Searing pain invades Frank Kerr’s legs, feet and hands. The older he gets, the shorter his walks.
All were Marines at “Frozen Chosin” - the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, a fierce, two-week struggle against overwhelming Chinese forces 46 years ago. All suffered frostbite in temperatures of 30 below and colder.
For thousands of veterans already dealing with the infirmities of age, that prolonged exposure to severe cold has added a host of problems not obviously linked to battle ordeals, such as diabetes and skin cancer.
This year, such victims are getting compensated for the first time, as the Department of Veterans Affairs formally - and finally - recognizes the long-term effects of frostbite as a service-related injury.
Once VA doctors are trained to recognize symptoms, as many as 4,000 surviving Marine and Army veterans of Chosin may be compensated for frostbite, says Dr. Murray Hamlet, a director at the Army Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass.
With World War II veterans included, the total could surpass 5,000, he says.
Frostbite as a wartime medical problem is not new, notes Dr. Susan Mather, chief public health and environmental hazards officer with the Veterans Health Administration in Washington, D.C.
What is new is recognition that frostbite can cause long-term complications for aging veterans, even if they didn’t lose appendages to the initial encounter, she said.
The most common, she says, are diabetes, circulatory problems, arthritis, skin cancer in frostbite scars, chronic night pain and fungal infections caused by the skin’s loss of immune functions. Researchers are still looking into potential long-term effects on internal organs.
Hamlet says the VA has known about cold-weather complications since the 1940s but officially ignored them until the early 1990s, when new VA leadership and the veterans’ campaign revived interest. Official recognition came last October.
“The ones I’ve looked at, they’ve really had their lives compromised by this injury,” Hamlet says. “The sad part is there are a lot of wives whose husbands died and they didn’t get compensation for all those years.”
The VA expects cold-injury claims to be limited because virtually all the nation’s post-Korea conflicts have been fought in warm climates - Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf.
In November 1950, the 1st Marine Division, elements of the Army’s 7th Division and a unit of British Royal Marines - 20,000 troops in all - marched 70 miles into the mountains surrounding Chosin Reservoir, part of a final drive to defeat North Korea.
That spurred China to enter the war. Twelve veteran Chinese divisions, at least 120,000 men, enveloped the allies, whose only path back to the coast was a one-lane mountain road. Half the 15,000 allied deaths and injuries came from unrelenting exposure to howling winds and frigid temperatures.
Hamlet says many soldiers and Marines refused aid for frostbite because doctors were overwhelmed with battle wounds. Now, hobbled with complications, they have no records to show how and where they were frostbitten, although Mather says proof of service at Chosin may be enough.
Derize, 65 and living in Tacoma, was a Marine sergeant at Chosin. He says the only cold-weather gear issued him was a parka. As he aged, he suffered phlebitis - blood clots in his legs. He thinks the piercing pain in his collarbone comes from standing in a chest-high foxhole.
“I have a terrible, terrible time sleeping because the pain is so great,” Derize says. “The pain and suffering as you get older increases.”
Foley, 70, of Bothell, Wash., was evacuated from Chosin with frostbitten feet. He recalls a VA doctor telling him he probably wouldn’t have further problems until he got older.
The doctor was right. In 1987, Foley was diagnosed with diabetes. Now he must walk with a cane. “My feet are always uncomfortable,” he says. “The colder the weather, I can really feel it.”
Kerr, 66, of Hull, Mass., was a Marine photographer at Chosin. His feet, legs and hands were frostbitten. In his 50s, those extremities started giving him unusual pain.
It took five years and four examinations by a vascular surgeon before the VA awarded him compensation, Kerr says.
Mather anticipates more claims as the word gets out.
“Frankly, I want to see more,” she says. “They’re out there, and they need help. They richly deserve it.”
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