FT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) – A South Florida veteran will be in attendance when President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Jeff Colaiacovo will be the guest of Congresswoman Lois Frankel.
“I’m very honored beyond words. To me it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m so thankful and feel so blessed,” said Colaiacovo, who lives in Fort Lauderdale
During his service in vietnam, Colaiacovo earned two Purple Hearts.
He was rewarded with his first one Heart after a mine blew up in front of his tank and he temporarily lost his vision. Then he went back into combat and was driving a tank that got hit by a handheld rocket launcher.
Colaiacovo was trapped inside the burning tank and suffered second and third degree burns over one-third of his body. He spent five months in burn wards across the world.
“There was gunfire galore coming from both sides and unfortunately my tank got hit with an RPG2 (rocket propelled grenade) round which is a handheld rocket,” said Colaiacovo. “I was trapped in the driver hatch and I was on fire. To this day I don’t recall how I got out of the tank, I just remember my life flashing in front of me.”
After returning from the war, he got married and had a family.
While battling medical issues and PTSD, a frustrated Colaiacove contacted Frankel’s office in February 2013 for help getting his Veterans Administration benefits because he had not received a response from the VA since filing a claim in May 2011.
“What I call the VA merry-go-round,” said Colaiacova. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of vets out there that get so frustrated with the system because it’s so backlogged that they drop out and they never really get the benefits they deserve.”
Frankel’s office filed a congressional inquiry and was notified he would get partial disability and retroactive back pay from the VA. Colaiacove worked with Frankel’s office and appealed that decision and sought full disability.
In January 2014, the VA notified Colaiacove that he would get full disability and that he would receive thousands in retro backpay.
“Thanks to Congresswoman Frankel and her staff, I am no longer stuck in the VA backlog and now receiving the benefits I desperately needed,” said Colaiacovo. “Sadly there are too many veterans who are still waiting for their benefits and I want to help bring attention to this so that no man or woman who served our country is ever left behind.”
“I just want to say thank you to Jeff for serving our country, you are a hero,” said Frankel. “This is an opportunity to focus on an important issue and Jeff is helping me do that,” said Frankel who is the mother of a Marina veteran. “It’s important that people remember it’s not just numbers, it’s real people, real lives, real heroes we owe a great deal of gratitude.”
According to Frankel’s office, as of January 21st, more than 380,000 disability claims for veterans nationally are backlogged as they have been pending for at least 125 days. The VA in St. Petersburg has the most claims pending of any regional VA office in the country (more than 41,000) and highest number of backlogged claims (over 26,000).