At first I couldn’t believe it. This week I sat aghast reading how a Bronze Star recipient’s prosthetic legs were repossessed because neither the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or Medicare would pay the bill.

While our nation was praying for troops in the Middle East as Iran attacked bases in Iraq, Jerry Holliman of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was feeling betrayed by the country he volunteered to defend. If anyone ever has a right to feel like a man forgotten by his country, it’s Holliman.

A dispute between the VA and Medicare led to a man walking into the state-run veterans’ nursing home in Collins, Mississippi, and taking Holliman’s prosthetic legs two days before Christmas. In a reversal of the sickening actions, the prosthetics were returned but require major adjustments to be fully functional. No one will pay, so the prosthesis company has refused to adjust the legs. Holliman still can’t walk.

The VA should foot the bill, but they’ve refused. They say Medicare should pay.

“Medicare did not send me to Vietnam,” Holliman told the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. “I was sent there by my country ... with the understanding that if something bad happened to me, that it would be covered by the VA.”

I agree with Holliman, who by all accounts as an outstanding soldier and spent 40 years in the military. At 18, he volunteered to fight in Vietnam. He continued his career in the National Guard and served in Iraq as a master sergeant when he was 53. He’s a two-time recipient of the Bronze Star, the Clarion Ledger reported.

His legs were amputated because of service-related diabetes caused by exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange while he was serving in Vietnam. The government pledged to take care of him. It broke its promises.

Holliman’s story is just the latest example of how our nation has failed to keep its word for our defenders. He’s positioned squarely in the most under-respected and forgotten group of men to ever put on an American uniform — African Americans from the South who served in Vietnam.

Nacogdoches residents need look no further to see the plight of black Vietnam War veterans than our own hometown hero, Oscar P. Austin. The action detailed in Austin’s Medal of Honor citation is so unflinchingly heroic that it would almost be unbelievable if cooked up by a Hollywood screenwriter.

Yet, when the White House announced that he would receive the military’s highest honor, The Arizona Republic — his adopted hometown of Phoenix’s largest newspaper — ran a story on Page 22. A story about a 14-year-old white student who won a spelling bee ran on the front page that day.

Such disrespect is not limited to African American veterans or even those of the Vietnam era. In December, we featured veterans of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, and one of them waited more than a decade for a diagnosis of a service-related illness.

How did our nation let this happen? Why does it continue to happen over and again? How long must veterans suffer because of the inaction of their own government?

The stories of veterans like Holliman would never come to light if not for the work of dedicated journalists. Without Jack Bologna at the Clarion Ledger, the nation would not know about the despicable deeds committed against Holliman.

The story published Thursday morning, and by Friday afternoon it had been picked up by the USA Today network, Newsweek and The Associated Press, publishing in newspapers and websites around the globe. I called Bologna at his office in Mississippi on Friday to ask a few questions and thank him for looking out for our nation’s veterans.

Meanwhile, Holliman sits in a wheelchair at the veteran’s nursing home, hoping that one day he will be able to live independently again in his own house. He’s not the only one. I’m sure there are thousands of men just like him across the country, men who were promised medical care for their service only to have those promises broken.

We as Americans must demand action. We’ve seen the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to be free, and too many of them once wore a U.S. military uniform.

Josh Edwards is managing editor of The Daily Sentinel. His email is josh.edwards@dailysentinel.com.

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