By Jim Holt
Signal Staff Writer
661-259-1234 x527
McKeon steps up to help Iwo Jima veteran

• VA waives repayment of almost $4,000 after talk with congressman.

A decorated World War II veteran who served with the United States Marines and fought at the battle of Iwo Jima no longer owes the Department of Veterans Affairs almost $4,000 in overpayments after U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon championed his case and won.

Retired Staff Sergeant Carl Diekman of the U.S. Marines 5th Division was sitting in an armchair by the phone inside his mobile home in Canyon Country on Tuesday when the phone rang shortly after 2:30 p.m.

It was McKeon calling from Washington, D.C. Diekman's deep baritone voice kept saying the words "yes sir, yes sir" in a tone normally reserved for military commanders until he received the official word that his debt of $3,936 had been waived.

"You just made my day, sir," Diekman told McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, on the phone. "That's the best news I've heard in a long time."

After a brief pause, he added: "I'm just like any other serviceman to go in and do their duty."

The five-minute conversation was explained in greater detail by Bob Haueter, McKeon's deputy chief of staff, who was with Diekman when the phone call was received.

"We talked with the VA director's office this morning," Haueter said. "She informed us that the VA had initiated a review and had looked through Mr. Diekman's file and, based on his current status and all the other factors, the department has agreed to waive the $3,936 owed."

Haueter was asked if consistent media coverage about the case contributed to the government decision.

"I couldn't speculate on that," he said.

Since The Signal first reported Diekman's story more than a week ago, several people have contacted the newspaper by phone and e-mail asking how they could help him, all of them asking where they should send money.

Diekman and his son, Trevor, never asked for money and had only contacted The Signal and McKeon for help in resolving the VA's bill for almost $4,000.

Before McKeon's phone call, Diekman explained how touched he was that so many people offered to help him.

"I went out to Agua Dulce to thank the woman who gave me $20 but she wasn't there," he explained. "And, when I told her daughter that I just wanted to thank her in person, she started crying."

Diekman - a proud and humble man - said he doesn't know what to do with money already donated by people he doesn't know.

"They may have troubles of their own," he said reflecting on the donations. "Maybe sometime I can help return the favor.

"I'm not a hero," he said. "I just done my job when I was called on - just like any other veteran."

Diekman told The Signal last week that he was worried he would lose his Social Security if the VA bill wasn't paid.

McKeon's news that the federal agency was waiving the bill, came at the same time Diekman's son, Trevor, had just opened a trust account to handle the money already donated.

"I am so ecstatic," Trevor Diekman said. "All of this takes pressure off of my father. He can sleep easy now. I am so thankful to everyone."

More than two dozen people, many of them servicemen, called The Signal daily expressing both outrage over the government's decision to charge Diekman and a desire to help the retired Marine personally.

U.S. Marine Major Mimi Cottrell, Operations Officer with the Exercise Division at Twentynine Palms wrote Tuesday: "If there is a way I can help, possibly a way to donate money to pay what he owes. I'm sure there are plenty of Marines in Twentynine Palms who would bend over backwards to help a fellow Marine in his time of need."

Vets also contacted The Signal - one a Vietnam War "grunt" on Tuesday from Ohio - to say that they were also being billed for changes in marital status.

Diekman's problems with the VA office began when he filled out a form notifying officials about his change in marital status - namely, that he had remarried.

According to Haueter, the VA office informed McKeon that Diekman had never informed them that his first wife had died and that, consequently, Diekman had been receiving benefit checks based on incorrect information.

All that is a moot point now.

"I can sleep good tonight," Diekman said.