ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A New Mexico veteran takes pride in her service to our country. However, she claims the same government she served failed her in a big way. The major mix-up on the government’s part has cost the Navy veteran years of trouble.
Growing up in Albuquerque, Barbara Silva knew as a teenager she wanted to serve.
“We grew up in New Mexico desert and I wanted something different, so I decided to join the Navy,” Silva told NBC4’s sister station KRQE News 13.
As the first female from her family to join, her service in the U.S. Navy took her to duty stations all across the ocean.
“I loved it,” Silva recalled. She planned to make a career out of the military.
Then in 1993, her world was turned upside down. Silva was certain someone had stolen her identity.
“This other person filed bankruptcy and they attached a lien to my military pay,” she explained.
The problem was linked to her social security number. The military couldn’t help her.
“My military chain of command were very understanding and they were also very empathetic, but there’s nothing that they can do.”
“You don’t want to pay someone else’s debt,” Silva added. “So I had to get out. And I had 13 years in.”
Silva said the problem was not easily resolved and forced her to leave with seven years left to retire.
In response to the problem, she said the government gave her a new social security number. But with the new number, Silva learned her 13 years in the military were effectively wiped clean, still attached to her old social security number.
“The military still has not made any corrections on my service records,” Silva explained. “So, I don’t own my military service.”
So, who does? Was there a mystery woman with her identity? Silva had no idea. But the problem has cost her years of headaches.
Silva said she and her family members get calls from debt collectors for debt that isn’t hers. And for decades, she couldn’t connect with veteran benefits or services.
“I lost a lot,” she said. “I lost my retirement. I lost the job I loved.”
Silva has piles of letters written back and forth to the Navy, Social Security Administration and government officials.
She even wrote President Obama and Governor Susana Martinez, who directed her to Senator Martin Heinrich’s office.
“It’s unfortunately all too common for people to come to us when they have a challenge with a federal agency that they just can’t work through, and it’s really an important part of what we do in the Senate office,” Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich told KRQE News 13.
With the Senator’s help, Silva finally received a letter from the Social Security Administration.
It states, “On June 23, 1976, we were at fault in assigning you the Social Security number…previously assigned to another individual with the same first and middle names and the same month and day of birth.”
The letter continues, “We sincerely regret the error…”
Silva was shocked to learn that’s what’s been causing her problems for so many years.
“I get this letter and it’s like ‘Ah, that’s really what happened?’ Oh my God, that’s ridiculous,” Silva recalled.
“And then they put on the bottom of it, ‘So if you have any changes to make, go ahead and reach out and contact people to make all these changes that you need to make.’”
After the letter, Silva still felt like she was on her own again to make any necessary changes the mix-up has impacted over her life.
“The government failed me,” the Navy veteran told KRQE News 13.
And it’s still failing her. Silva has tried to re-enlist multiple times, so she can complete a full 20 years of service and retire.
Today, she’s 53 years old with seven years left to serve in the military. But the Navy won’t let her back.
In a letter sent to her last year, the Navy told her she wouldn’t be able to reach 20 years of active service prior to her 60th birthday. In other words, she’s too old.
“I try to stay positive,” she said. “Does it affect my life? Yes.”
Silva thinks the Navy still doesn’t recognize she already has 13 years of service on her record. That prior service, she believes, is still associated with her old social security number.
Senator Heinrich’s office is still trying to help Silva fix the mess and connect her with veteran services.
“It’s especially frustrating when you see people who have really selflessly given a big chunk of their life in service to this country – really struggle to access the services that they’ve really earned,” said Senator Heinrich.
As for the mystery woman with her old social security number, Silva said she doesn’t want to let a stranger know she can access Silva’s information.
“I just don’t want to take the chance,” she explained.
There has been some progress. After thousands of hours trying to fix a problem she didn’t create, Silva did receive updated discharge papers from the military with her new number.
It’s just one more step in regaining her life.
Despite the problems she’s run into, Silva has no regrets about joining the Navy.
“Absolutely, I’d do it again,” she said. “Regardless of anything, I served our country. I did what I felt was right to be an American citizen, and to stand up and be a part of what makes us free.”
She hopes with some help, she’ll finally be able to access the benefits she’s due for her service to the country.
The Social Security Administration told KRQE News 13 via email:
“This is a very uncommon event. SSA has safeguards in place to prevent this from happening, but it does occur rarely. If individuals have general questions about Social Security numbers or if they need to replace their Social Security card, they may do so by visiting our website at socialsecurity.gov. If an individual has reason to believe there may be a problem with their number, they may call SSA at 1-800-772-1213 or visit their local office for assistance.”