The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), in Washington and elsewhere throughout the country, have had their share of headlines lately. Very few of them have been positive. Renewed hope came to many when Secretary Shulkin was appointed to be the new Department Secretary. He is, of course, a doctor and appears to have been a good choice to help clean up the misdeeds of past leadership.
One aspect of this effort must include a serious look at how the DVA chose to deal with the 2.5 million American veterans who served in Vietnam and other Southeast Asia posts in support of the Vietnam War. Yes, I know, that was a long time ago. But the injuries can last a lifetime and many of these patriots still suffer from a wide variety of injuries, illnesses and misfortunes from their answering the country’s call to fight a very dirty war – all without benefits to which they should be entitled.
Not only because of the dirty politics that lengthened and complicated those patriots’ job, but because there were unknowingly placed in a very dirty and dangerous environment by the spraying of a laundry list of herbicides and other toxic chemicals that were claimed – at the time – to be completely safe for those exposed thereto.
Decades later, the federal government finally acknowledged that these herbicides, Agent Orange being the most widely mentioned but by far not the only one, contained highly toxic and carcinogenic ingredients. The most often mentioned of those is Dioxin. But how many are aware that a significant amount of spraying, particularly in close proximity to troop locations was conducted using the most-deadly of those herbicides mixed with JP4 jet fuel (a petroleum-based fuel similar to kerosene that contains benzene, toluene, and another dozen or two other strange ingredients some of which can cause cancer in several forms. Another less well-known herbicide was called Agent Blue which has been shown to promote tumor growth in animal studies. This one, along with some of the others, was used extensively throughout Vietnam and Thailand where hundreds of Air Force personnel kept the planes flying in support of the ground-troupes in Vietnam.
What is outrageous about the above is that the “remedy” for the veterans was so haphazardly developed and mismanaged. Here are some examples:
- Regarding the above-mentioned mixture of jet fuel and Agent Orange, it seems strange that when the water supply at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was contaminated with benzene many of the people who contracted renal cell carcinoma (RCC – a form of kidney cancer) were presumptively granted disability benefits from that exposure, but spraying troops with jet fuel in another location is not even considered for benefits.
- The Institute of Medicine (National Academies of Science) was tasked with providing the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs with bi-annual reports that were supposed to include reviews of all available scientific studies regarding the use of herbicides in Vietnam and surrounds and what diseases have been tied to exposure so that the VA could make decisions as to which diseases should be “presumed to be caused by exposure to herbicides.” However, a review of the last three reports from that committee failed to mention any studies of any of the toxic ingredients in any of the herbicides used other than Agent Orange.
- In 2010, the VA Medical Center in Shreveport, LA, conducted a file review study to examine whether there was a connection between herbicide exposure and RCC. The records of 297 patients produced 40 who served in Vietnam – a very high percentage for one form of cancer among a small population sample. The conclusion drawn by the study authors was that the results could only be made conclusive by expanding the universe of patients included in the study. One must ask – how many VA treatment facilities are there in the U.S.? Here we are, fully seven years later, and to anyone’s knowledge, the DVA has failed to conduct a single additional study concerning any connection between herbicides and RCC. Meanwhile, because of the difficulty in proving connection without scientific evidence, less than ten percent of claims for disability benefits for RCC victims are approved. Similar circumstances exist with other diseases that have not yet made it onto the DVA “presumed connected” list.
- The entire appeals process was recently reexamined because many veterans are still waiting ten years after their application for benefits. The system was (and still is) convoluted, highly technical, and legalistic. It typically cannot be navigated by the average veteran without the help of an attorney. A recent change created a “Fully Developed Claim” process that fast-tracks the decision process, but with the government there is always a catch. Based on my reading of the law, as passed, the veteran must submit every speck of evidence available at the time of the initial claim, but by choosing the fast-track process, he/she gives up any right to introduce new evidence once the claim is reviewed and acted upon. Not sure that this is going to be a viable solution unless the disease and the location of service (within Vietnam itself) is not in dispute. This brings us to the final indignity…
- The Air Force types who loaded the bombs and fixed the planes and fueled the planes and fought the bugs, heat, and anxiety of service in Southeast Asia – but NOT within Vietnam itself – are denied a presumption of exposure to any herbicides. The only exceptions are those who served as Security Police who patrolled the perimeters of bases in Thailand. Otherwise, if you worked anywhere else, you must prove you were exposed – something that is nearly impossible to prove under the limitations required by DVA. The key to proving it is whether you were or were not “working on or near the base perimeters where herbicides were sprayed.” No credence is given to the suggestion that having a barracks (where you spent nearly all your off-duty time) within 50 feet of said perimeter fence thereby exposed you to the herbicides. The Army Field Manual specifies that wind drift zones should be maintained at least 500 meters (over 1500 feet) between spraying and any edible crops. Yet, I slept within 50 feet of the fence and must prove exposure???
All of this should have been resolved many years ago. Literally hundreds have died without ever receiving a ruling on their claim, or died after being denied their rightful benefits for ridiculously technical reasons. Some surviving spouses continue the fight, in some cases to fulfill the dying wish of their husbands.
None of these problems are caused by or can be connected to Secretary Shulkin, but he inherits them all. What he does with them will go a long way to defining his success.
The question among the many weary veterans still waiting is: “Are they just waiting for us to die so they don’t have to deal with what happened to us?” If that is, in fact, what caused the bureaucratic maze through which these often-silent suffering soldiers and airmen plod, it seems to be working. There are only about 850,000 Vietnam-era veterans still breathing. Time is wasting. Make some noise. We all owe them a debt. They didn’t make the war, they just fought it…for you and me.