written by Todd DePastino

Photo of Vietnam MACV-SOG Paul Mihalic

Paul Mihalic (Paul & Karen Mihalic)

On our September 18 VBC Happy Hour with Joshua Jacobs, Under Secretary of the VA for Benefits, VBC Member Karen Mihalic shared the troubling story of her husband Paul, who served two tours in Vietnam as a USAF Air Commando with MACV-SOG—“Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group.”

Don’t let the “Studies and Observations” name fool you: this wasn’t a group of professors on an ethnographic tour of Vietnamese rain forests.

Rather, the innocuous-sounding title was cover for a top-secret, all-volunteer, theatre-wide, unconventional warfare force that took Air Commandos, Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Vietnamese counterparts across national borders, into enemy territory, and beyond the thresholds of official oversight. Their uniforms bore no name tags, rank, or insignia. Their weapons had no serial numbers. They flew into darkness at the tip of the spear.

Virtually every SOG member was either killed or wounded.  Those who survived suffered the further indignity of having their service disavowed by the Pentagon. It was not until the 1990s, when books and Congressional testimony revealed the extent of SOG’s decade of operations in Southeast Asia, that the government finally admitted to SOG’s existence.

Today, Paul Mihalic is no longer bound by the vow of secrecy he took when he entered SOG. He can talk freely about his missions.

But, stricken with advanced Parkinson’s Disease, speech is difficult for Paul, as is walking, eating, and other daily activities common to most people.

Parkinson’s is one of 19 illnesses on the VA’s “presumption” list for Agent Orange exposure. That means if you served in Vietnam (or a dozen-odd other locations where Agent Orange and related herbicides were used, transported, or stored) and you have Parkinson’s, the VA will presume it was caused by Agent Orange exposure and will provide medical treatment and tax-free disability compensation if application is made.

But the VA has repeatedly denied Paul disability compensation because he can’t prove to the VA’s satisfaction that he served in Vietnam.

And that’s because his MACV-SOG records are still classified. Paul’s Official Military Personnel Files are incomplete, key records having been removed and kept inaccessible.

Paul is no longer able to advocate for himself, but his wife, Karen, is smart and tireless in her efforts to win justice for Paul.

The issue, she says, isn’t the money. It’s the principle that those who served should be acknowledged and recognized by the VA. And Karen knows that Paul is hardly alone.

“I have appealed his claim to the VA Board of Appeals, where it has remained in remand and stagnated since June,” she says.

What’s especially frustrating is the VA’s system-wide ignorance of MACV-SOG, a product of the group’s three decades in shrouded secrecy.

“No one we have encountered in the VA system knows anything about this highly classified, covert unit, including the judge who heard my husband’s testimony. I have asked for assistance from two Congressmen, a Senator, and President Joe Biden’s office. They all needed to be educated too, yet again, no records.”

Most puzzling, perhaps, is that the VA won’t accept Paul’s Vietnam Service Medal (VSM) and Overseas Service Bars—both listed on his DD-214—as proof of “boots on the ground.”

She’s exhausted every avenue she can think of: the Air Force’s Freedom of Information Act office, the Defense Accounting Agency, the United States Special Operations Command, and the Air Force Board of Corrections.

No one can explain how a DD-214 with a VSM and OS bars isn’t proof Paul was in Vietnam.

Paul was wounded by a grenade in his final mission and treated for his injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. But not even Walter Reed will release his records out of concern over their classification.

One ray of hope came in 2018 with the passage of something called the “Gary Deloney and John Olsen Toxic Exposure Declassification Act” as part of the larger 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

The act, intended to fix precisely the kind of problem Paul and Karen have encountered, was named for two sailors whose service was classified, making them unable to access compensation for their service-related illnesses.

Unofficial insignia of MACV-SOG

Unofficial insignia of MACV-SOG

Like Paul Mihalic, Gary Delony had the Vietnam Service Medal. He also possessed financial statements noting hazardous duty pay and other evidence of his service in Vietnam. But, because his missions were classified, Gary never received a service connection designation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He died in 2017.

John Olsen, similarly, fought for years to get access to his records to prove his exposure to highly toxic carcinogens aboard his ship in the mid-1960s. Olsen took part in Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense), which included tests to gauge the vulnerability of naval vessels and personnel to chemical and biological attacks. His chemical exposure led to four bouts with cancer over the years.

The Toxic Exposure Declassification Act finally allowed Olsen to refer the VA to his Project SHAD records for proof of exposure. He’s now accessing his benefits and receiving care from the VA.

This is precisely the kind of legislative action that should have unlocked the records Paul needs. But, for some reason, MACV-SOG records were not included in the Toxic Exposure Declassification Act’s mandate of disclosure.

Until that happens, Paul Mihalic and other MACV-SOG veterans will remain outside the VA system of care and benefits. And Karen will continue her fight to honor her husband’s service and sacrifice.

Editor’s Note: All veterans seeking compensation, including those who served in the newly designated areas defined by the PACT Act of 2022, should contact a Veteran Service Organization (VSO) for assistance in making their applications.  VSOs help veterans make VA claims at no charge. Once you appoint a VSO as your representative, it can access any records the VA has on file, both military and medical. Something as simple as a tooth repair or a vaccination signed or stamped and dated by an attending physician can serve as proof of “boots on the ground.” For a list of Congressionally chartered VSOs, see https://veterans.house.gov/resources-for-veterans/veterans-service-organizations.htm