- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

POWHATAN, Va. (AP) - Joseph Mendez remembers days so cold during the Battle of the Bulge that his fingers wouldn’t bend to squeeze a trigger. The numbness in his legs is a constant reminder of the morning he and another young soldier had to be pulled out of a frozen foxhole.

Mendez, then a 19-year-old Army private, somehow survived the frosty hell that left 19,000 Americans dead.

“I’m hard to kill,” said Mendez, 89.

But an errant mouse click by some low-level federal worker swiftly accomplished what German gunfire in the bitter cold couldn’t. Mendez, days after burying his wife of 68 years in July, learned that he was legally dead.

A letter from the Social Security Administration - dated July 23 and addressed to Dorothy Mendez, who died July 12 - was the first sign of a mix-up that has taken months to correct.

“We are sorry to learn of your loss,” the letter describing the end of his benefits begins. “Please accept our sincere sympathy.”

Mendez’s daughter, Doddydell Green, opened the letter and shrugged it off. She and her husband, John, were busy helping Mendez sell his house in New York and move in with them in Powhatan.

She’d call the number on the letter, explain the problem and they’d all laugh about it later, Green thought.

But resurrecting the dead wouldn’t be so easy.

The Social Security Administration’s erroneous declaration triggered a cascade of notifications. Mendez’s veterans benefits, his Medicare, his General Electric pension and his credit cards would stop. And every phone call seemed to lead to another, with no one on the other end sure when government computers would accept the simple truth that Joseph Mendez is alive.

The ordeal appeared to be over soon after Green and Mendez visited the Social Security office in Albany, N.Y., his presence seeming like absolute proof.

Once the receptionist directed them to a cubicle at the end of a long hallway, Mendez swung his arms as he strolled down the hallway.

“Dead man walking, dead man walking,” he announced.

By September, Mendez had received back pay and an apology from the government.

But earlier this month, the exaggerated reports of his demise resurfaced.

A note from Mendez’s bank in New York explained that because of his death in July, it had removed $6,399 from his accounts to send back to the VA and the Social Security Administration.

Green spent much of Dec. 9 crying, imagining the headache of once again convincing the government of something that ought to be clear.

“He’s a wreck over this, and I’m at my wit’s end,” Green said. “I think it’s pretty sick that this can happen. … The government can do this, and nobody seems to be able to straighten it out.”

Mendez is lucky to have family members who can take care of him. But what would happen to someone living off their monthly checks if they were all mistakenly stopped, Green wonders. Would it be enough to really kill them?

The Social Security Administration corrects about 9,000 mistaken death reports each year, a tiny fraction of the roughly 2.8 million deaths the agency handles annually. A regional Social Security Administration spokeswoman said in an email that her office contacted Mendez on Dec. 11 to fix the mistake after a reporter asked about his case.

The Veterans Administration’s Virginia office also began working to take Mendez off the death rolls Dec. 10 following a reporter’s inquiry.

“It’s probably a very small percentage that it happens to but, when it happens to you, it’s a big thing,” said Kevin Thompson, a VA spokesman in Virginia. “You’re talking about something that does impact somebody’s livelihood, so it’s a big deal. We act promptly to get those issues resolved.”

Mendez and his daughter say they do not understand why it has been so difficult to convince the government he’s alive. In some ways, it has kept them from grieving for Dorothy Mendez.

Mendez still paints and creates stained-glass art that hangs throughout the Green home.

Despite the frustration of being “clicked dead,” Mendez has maintained his sense of humor.

“Sometimes I feel bad,” he deadpanned, “but not that bad.”

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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