For more than two years during the Vietnam War, Alex Graham worked at various locations in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, utilizing his communications experience and ability to speak French.
A U.S. Air Force airman in a combat region, Graham’s unique mission required him to wear civilian clothes to blend in and travel alone without his unit or fellow airmen by his side.
“It was an honor to serve my country,” said Graham, a 63-year-old Gig Harbor resident.
But due to the unique missions and various uncommon duty locations, Graham’s discharge papers didn’t accurately reflect his service, which included several medals he earned: the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, National Defense of Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and the Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon.
“The medals should have been there (on the papers),” said Graham, who owned a local construction business for more than 20 years before retiring last September.
So the former airman set out to set the record straight. He scoured the web, carefully researching how to obtain all the proper documentation. Graham was finally able to have his record amended to reflect his service, but he was never sent the actual decorations.
Graham reached out to U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, to help obtain the awards. Kilmer’s staff worked with the Air Force Legislative Liaison and the Air Force Personnel Center to get Graham what he earned. The long odyssey finally came to a close last Friday at Graham’s Gig Harbor home when Kilmer pinned those medals on the veteran in a short ceremony before family and friends.
“One of the things I’m most proud of since taking office is the work we do for constituents through our casework responsibilities — working with federal agencies to cut through red tape and get services, money or materials that folks have earned or entitled to,” Kilmer said.
Kilmer has made a big push recently to reach out to local veterans organizations to offer his services. To date, Kilmer’s office has secured more than $200,000 in funds specifically to veterans.
The medals represent a military service validation for Graham, but it was the fight to get them — and settle his Veterans Affairs disability claim — that was life-changing. After his first VA claim failed in 1989, Graham faced desparate circumstances many years later when his Hepatitis C (which he caught serving overseas while being treated for a gunshot wound) put him in the hospital in 2007.
“I got 100 percent disability once we got the documentation (of service),” Graham said. “(If) you don’t have the medals, you can’t get the (VA) claim.”
The fight to settle his VA claim spurred Graham to write a book about the process to help other veterans get what they are entitled to.
“It’s gratifying because I can now help others,” he said.
Mark Tolomei, who found Graham online, got help with his VA claim and was approved for 100 percent disability after a two-year struggle.
“Alex got me connected,” said Tolomei, who moved up to Gig Harbor from California last August after having his claim approved. “There is a lot of procedural stuff you that you have to know. Alex has been a godsend for many veterans.”