Millard Sells, 87, and his wife Christine, in their Byrdstown home, tell about their two-decade battle to win a full disability pension. (John Partipilo / The Tennessean)
Millard Sells enlisted in the Marines on May 6, 1944, when he was 18. After serving in Iwo Jima, he was sent to combat in Okinawa and later worked at a Guam airfield. (Courtesy)
BYRDSTOWN, TENN. — Millard Sells saw some of the fiercest combat of his life in 1945 on Iwo Jima, but for most of the past two decades he has been engaged in a different, more bureaucratic battle.
He’s had to convince the government that sent him off to war that it should help support him due to the disabilities he suffers from his time on active duty.
Last week the Department of Veterans Affairs notified him that he had been granted a full disability award for injuries suffered in combat and on active duty. The notice came just ahead of his 88th birthday, which is on Valentine’s Day.
“Thank God I got my money,” a jubilant Sells exclaimed from his Byrdstown, Tenn., home. “For the first time we have complete confidence we’ll have enough to live on.”
But Sells’ victory is only a partial one. His attorney, John Cameron, noted that the veteran was granted benefits back to 2005 — 10 years after Sells’ original application for benefits.
The VA attorney handling Sells’ case did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“At age 87, it’s hard to keep fighting,” Cameron said. “I’m sure they realize that.”
While financial security seems assured, the nightmares and pain that led to Sells’ claim in the first place remain very real.
As his wife, Christine, and daughter Alice can attest, Sells still wakes up in the middle of the night reliving the battles he fought as a young Marine on the islands of the Pacific.
Sells’ case comes to light amid growing concerns about delays and backlogs in the handling of similar claims. A report issued Monday by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America warned that promised improvements in the VA’s processing of claims seem to have stalled over the past six months. The VA responded by stating it was executing an “aggressive plan” to eliminate the backlog in 2015.
Court records show Sells and Cameron have been bounced back and forth between an agency board and a federal courtroom to get answers from the VA. Those battles began with the VA’s regional office in Nashville.
Recently a federal judge had to order the VA to at least respond to Sells’ repeated requests for basic data on his case.
“The petitioner further asserts that he has made at least eight written requests,” Judge Mary Schoelen wrote in a two-page order.
Nightmares and memories
Once the 5th Marines Division had landed on Iwo Jima in February 1945, Sells said that his commander ordered him and four other Marines to act as scouts.
“There was extreme fire, and we got caught behind enemy lines. Three didn’t come back,” Sells said. The capture of the island and its airfield was regarded as a critical step in U.S. plans to launch air attacks on the Japanese mainland.
World War II mementos hang on the walls of his Pickett County home, not far from the longtime family home where he left for the war in 1944, as soon as he turned 18.
Before the recent decision, Sells had won some partial victories with his disability rating for post-traumatic stress and a back injury, inching up from a 10 percent disability to 50 percent and then 70 percent. Under the rating system veterans are awarded payments based on the percentage of normal activity the injury prevents the veteran from performing. The VA also has agreed to pay legal fees and expenses to Cameron.
Attorneys for the VA have repeatedly charged that Sells failed to file a timely appeal and at one point that he never filed an appeal at all.
“They’d claim they never got it,” Sells said, adding that he always sent his appeals by registered mail. Records in the case show VA officials also repeatedly questioned the extent of Sells’ disabilities.
At first Sells said he tried to handle the case on his own, filling out forms, sending multiple letters and requests. He began the quest in 1995 when back and neck pain made it impossible to keep working. He had held a number of jobs, including driving a school bus for more than a decade in northern California.
“I couldn’t straighten up. I couldn’t walk,” Sells said of his condition at the time.
“I’m going to have to quit work,” Sells said he told his wife.
She and his daughter Alice, a Nashville resident, said the ensuing legal battle for benefits got to be overwhelming, and they agreed in 2000 that a lawyer had to be brought in.
A weeping comrade
Tears came to Sells’ eyes as he recalled the Iwo Jima landing. As his unit was waiting offshore, he saw a young red-headed Marine weeping. He asked him why.
“He said, ‘Because I know I’m going to die, and my wife will be all alone.’ He was all tore up,” Sells said.
He tried to calm down his comrade by telling him that it wasn’t likely at all.
“For some reason I never worried about being killed,” Sells added.
But just before they were about to land they were hit with heavy gunfire. More than a hundred died.
As Sells made his way to the shore, he saw a head of red hair floating in the water. He pulled the Marine’s body to shore and then realized that the Marine he had told not to worry was dead.
“These are the kinds of things that bother you,” Sells added.
Sells was wounded later in the battle when he and other Marines had taken refuge in a hole. A grenade was lobbed into the hole, killing the Marine behind him and spraying his legs and back with shrapnel.
Years later the bits of metal showed up when his leg was X-rayed.
On the wall of his home is a picture he took of a B-29 on Tinian Island. It was one of the planes that later dropped an atomic bomb in Japan.
The youngest of 15 children, Sells said he began hunting when he was 12 and was assigned to shoot rabbits and squirrels in the woods of Pickett County to help feed the family. That experience and good eyesight led to his being designated as a scout in his Marine unit.
Though he had planned to join the Navy when he reached 18, a Marine recruiter corralled him and he enlisted on May 6, 1944. After service in Iwo Jima, Sells was sent to combat in Okinawa.
When the war ended, Sells was ultimately assigned to work at a Guam airfield, driving a truck and fueling planes.
That assignment led to serious back injury when he slipped on a patch of gasoline and fell off a plane’s wing.
Sells said that while the battle for benefits has been long and difficult, the health care from the VA, much of it provided at the VA hospital in Murfreesboro, has been excellent.
But he and his lawyer are not giving up in the battle for benefits going back to his original application. Cameron said Sells also is entitled to special benefit payments because of the back and neck injuries.
“I want my 100 percent,” Sells said.