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Hochul, Vietnam veteran she helped salute each other

Robert Lewis should have been dead already. That's what the doctors said anyway.

"It's been two years since they told me I would pass away," Lewis said. "They gave me two years to live. Well, I actually got the operation a month after the two years."

Lewis, a Vietnam War veteran, recently had aortic valve replacement, which saved the 59-year-old Lockport man's life -- but only after the Department of Veterans Affairs initially denied funding for the surgery.

Lewis found help in the form of a politician: Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul and her office eventually obtained the approval he needed for the operation.

Monday, Hochul and Lewis met again in the Research & Information Commons at Daemen College. This time, Hochul would be interviewing Lewis for the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The videotaped interview with Lewis will be available in the library for public use.

"Participation in the project is certainly a gift to the American people, who will be able to learn from the experience of veterans like Mr. Lewis for generations and generations to come," Hochul said before the interview.

Hochul, D-Amherst, then presented Lewis an American flag that was flown over the Capitol in Washington, D.C. After Lewis said a few words expressing his gratitude, the interview began in the small room with only Hochul staffers, media members and two Daemen officials present.

Hochul did about 20 minutes of the interview before leaving, allowing Chris Sasiadek, a caseworker in her office, to finish the roughly 45-minute session that chronicled Lewis' experiences in Vietnam.

In 1971, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in the war at age 19. Lewis, a member of the 11th Cavalry and 1st Airborne Cavalry, served for 18 months and earned a Bronze Star, the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross and the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross.

Lewis' father served in World War II, and his stepfather fought in Korea. Still, he never talked to his family about his experiences in Vietnam because he's still sensitive about the topic.

"It's stayed with me," Lewis said.

In a remote outpost, Lewis was hit in the shoulder by shrapnel but refused medical attention, opting instead to stay with his fellow soldiers. They couldn't worry about the age of those shooting at them, he said, adding that one of the last four the regiment killed was a 13-year-old who was armed.

"You shot back," Lewis said. "You didn't worry about 'political correctness' because it didn't exist at the time."

Coming back from "hot and stinky" Vietnam presented more challenges, Lewis said, as readjustment and counseling were not offered those veterans, who often were despised because of opposition to the war.

While looking to get a flight home from San Diego to Buffalo, he said, airline officials initially told him they wouldn't sell a plane ticket to "people like you" and threatened him with security. But the security officer was a veteran and simply welcomed him home, Lewis said.

The 20-year-old eventually got a plane ticket home.

"Not that I was looking for a parade or anything," he said. "I just wanted to be left alone."

But Lewis knows he may need more help in the coming months, as he will likely need a liver transplant stemming from a "service-connected" issue: exposure to Agent Orange.

Currently, he said, the VA says his liver was damaged in the United States rather than overseas. He said that's simply not true, and Hochul's office will once again be involved, especially since this injury is related to his time in Vietnam, while the heart condition was hereditary, Lewis said.

"You need to be honest about things," he said. "I'm not looking for a free ride. I'm just looking for help when I need it."