HAYWARD -- For Vietnam War veteran Thomas Testerman, a letter he recently received from the Defense Department was a reminder of the mistreatment his generation of soldiers faced.
Landing in his mailbox two days before Veterans Day, the letter informed him that he owes nearly $500 because of checks the Social Security Administration mistakenly sent him in 1972. If Testerman does not pay or dispute the bill, the letter stated, deductions from his monthly military retirement checks will begin just days before Christmas.
"The disabled vets from my era have been putting up with this crap for decades now," he said. "It's not right what they're doing to these guys."
Testerman, 61, of Hayward, says he nearly died from a lengthy list of wartime wounds, including severe injuries to his bladder, pelvis and scalp, and fractures to a hip, knee, femur bone and two vertebrae. Testerman, the son of a war veteran, says he lives in constant pain and, though he stands on his own, sometimes he must use a cane to walk.
"On a pain scale of 1 to 10, I walk around every day with a 7 or 8," he said.
While he was recovering 41 years ago, the government began mailing the monthly disability checks that he still receives today. Social Security then sent him a couple of checks, which perplexed him. Though he cashed a couple of them, Testerman consulted his attorney, who said he was not eligible for the Social Security payments. On his lawyer's advice, Testerman stopped cashing the checks, mailing them back for several months until the agency stopped sending them.
"Since then, I have just received my military disability retirement pay, which is about $600 a month," he said.
It's been a moot issue for four decades -- until two weeks ago.
Now, fighting the bill of $493.80 will involve engaging with a tangled web of government bureaucracy, Testerman said. The Department of Defense sent the recent letter, which directs Testerman to contact the Department of the Treasury if he has questions, even though the Social Security Administration is in charge of working with people on the amount allegedly owed.
Patricia Raymond, a Social Security Administration spokeswoman, said privacy laws prevent her from commenting on individual cases, but added that "our office makes every attempt to communicate with the public to answer their questions."
Testerman said he recently called a government hotline regarding the letter, and a Social Security representative told him, "If the law says we can take it (the money), we'll take it."
The Department of the Treasury is in charge of collecting "all nontax debt" that millions of people owe the U.S. government. That debt now totals about $1 trillion, agency officials said.
"There are many sympathetic situations and we balance working with people who need debt forgiven or a payment plan with working with people who can pay but are ignoring their obligations," said Ronda Kent, a Department of the Treasury official. "That's all to ensure that tax money is returned when appropriate so it can be spent on programs helping others who also have needs."
Testerman, a computer company employee, said he could afford to pay the bill, if necessary. But he worries if government agencies are making similar demands from many veterans in bad financial shape.
"If they're also doing this to younger vets, that's wrong," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "It's as immoral as can be."
Mark Chandler -- member of the Alameda County Veterans Affairs Commission, which assists local vets -- said he objects to the letter's "adversarial" tone.
"Under the circumstances, they should bend a little in dealing with veterans' issues," said Chandler, who also served in Vietnam. "We need to help vets."
Treasury Department officials have urged Testerman to contact them with any questions. But he says that years of dealing with government bureaucracy has made him cynical.
"I'm not holding my breath," he said.
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.