A Vietnam war hero awarded the Medal of Honor by President Reagan at an emotional ceremony two years ago is being removed from the Social Security disability rolls on the grounds that he is capable of some types of work despite his war injuries.
The action against Roy P. Benavidez, a former Green Beret, is part of the administration's review of hundreds of thousands of people on the disability rolls to see if they still are too disabled to work. Congress ordered the reviews in 1980.
"They said I could work," Benavidez said in a telephone interview from Texas last night.
Under the law, a person must be unfit for any job in order to be eligible. The reviews have brought widespread protests that people are being thrown off the rolls based on superficial information and cursory examinations.
Benavidez, a former master sergeant from El Campo, Tex., was cited by Reagan on Feb. 24, 1981, for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity" in action west of Loc Ninh, Vietnam, on May 2, 1968.
The president said Benavidez--despite sustaining severe wounds in the abdomen, back, thigh, head and arms and being clubbed by an enemy soldier--led the rescue of U.S. soldiers trapped in downed helicopters still under fire. He was credited with saving the lives of at least eight other Green Berets.
"I am not a hero," Benavidez, a former migrant worker and high school dropout, said when he received the citation. He added that he would "try to spend the rest of my life teaching youths the meaning of love, honor and service to their country."
Earlier this month at a Hispanic celebration in San Antonio, Reagan cited his presentation of the medal to Benavidez as an example of his administration's recognition of Hispanic citizens and added that when soldiers "place their lives on the line for us, we must make sure that they know we're behind them and appreciate what they're doing."
Benavidez, now 47 and the father of three, remained in the Army for several years after his Vietnam experience, but he retired in 1976 with a partial military disability rating.
Benavidez said last night that he also received a Social Security disability payment on the grounds that he was unable to work in the civilian economy because of his war wounds.
Benavidez said he suffered damage to a lung and shrapnel in his heart, and has severe pain in his legs.
By law, an individual is entitled to receive both a military pension and Social Security disability benefits if he qualifies.
Now, Benavidez said, he has been told he is able to work and was tentatively ordered off the Social Security rolls. He said he is appealing the decision to a Social Security administrative law judge.
The Social Security Administration, citing privacy rules, would not comment yesterday. However, a source outside the agency said that the White House is aware of some of Benavidez' difficulties and added that the president's private sector initiative, a unit designed to foster corporate and other private activities for people in need, had called Benavidez to offer to help him find a job or obtain other assistance.
Benavidez said last night that he does not blame the president for what has happened, but he said he regards the demand that he be reexamined by still another doctor an "insult to my integrity."
Press reports at the time Benavidez received the Medal of Honor said he was born near Cuero in DeWitt County, Tex., joined the Army Reserve in 1952, went on active duty three years later and served in Korea, Germany and Vietnam. He retired in 1976 as a result of combat-related injuries, according to information furnished when he received the medal, and later attended junior college for two years.
Last year, according to press reports, Benavidez agreed to serve as Mexican-American coordinator for George Strake, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Texas.
Although the deeds for which Benavidez was cited occurred in 1968 and the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery shortly thereafter, the recommendation that he get the Medal of Honor was turned down initially for lack of corroboration. But after an additional witness was located, special legislation was introduced on Capitol Hill that allowed the medal to be awarded. The Medal of Honor originally was established by congressional resolution.
The congressionally mandated reviews of the Social Security disability rolls have been so controversial that some members of Congress have asked that they be stopped until procedures are improved.
Yesterday, Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), who has sponsored such a bill with respect to people receiving disability assistance for mental impairments, wrote Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler.
In the letter he said that her department's opposition to the bill sounded like "knee-jerk negative reaction" at a time when people with mental disabilities are "being driven to the brink of suicide by continuing disability reviews that terminate benefits because an individual can feed a pet, boil an egg or bang a few keys on the piano.