WASHINGTON – The Veterans Benefits Administration denied Vic Vreeland’s disability claim even though a VA doctor told him that exposure to Agent Orange while he served in the Air Force in Guam could be the cause of chronic numbness and pain in his hands and feet.
It took 609 days from the time the Cedar Creek veteran filed his claim until a rejection notice arrived in August. While he waited, Vreeland created a website that has become a hit among veterans, judging by the more than 100,000 page-views this year.
DenyDenyUntilTheyDie.com, it’s called.
“If you’ve got a bullet hole, they’re not going to deny you. But these things you can’t see, they’ll tell you it didn’t happen,” said Vreeland, 73, who also suffers from heart disease.
Thousands of veterans with similar ailments prepared for a stinging defeat in Congress’s waning hours Thursday as two Senators blocked legislation enabling Navy veterans who served on ships during the Vietnam War to claim Agent Orange benefits like those awarded automatically to soldiers and marines who served on the ground.
The Senate posture was galling to many veterans because the House had passed the legislation in June — 382-0. Veterans fighting the VA over exposure to toxins had reason this year to believe that a new day was at hand when former Department of Veterans Secretary David Shulkin expressed support for their cause. But Shulkin was fired in the spring.
Beyond benefiting as many as 90,000 Navy veterans, the legislation was widely viewed as opening a door to veterans of other wars with toxic wounds.
They include Gulf war combatants who claim cancers from oil smoke and exploding munitions in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who attribute their cancers and respiratory problems to the destruction of chemicals, weapons, and even body parts in burn pits.
On Thursday morning, a dozen House members flanked by leaders of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and veterans advocates made a last-ditch appeal.
“Senators have to look at one another and ask, how many people are going to die if they have to wait another year for this to pass?” asked Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., a sponsor.
The tax-free disability awards veterans seek are calculated according to severity of the condition and can range from $100 monthly up to $2,000. Advocates view the payments as potentially the difference between ailing veterans living in comfort or barely scraping by.
Vreeland is among hundreds of veterans who contend that they suffer from cancers, heart ailments and other afflictions from exposure to herbicides while they served at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, a key U.S. installation since the mid-20th century.
With few exceptions, the VA denies their claims for compensation, telling veterans that no records of Agent Orange use or storage on Guam can be found, an analysis of dozens of recent VA rejections shows.
Findings by the Government Accountability Office could give an estimated 50,000 Guam veterans more ammunition. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, reported last month that a ship carrying drums of Agent Orange docked in Guam. While no records tell what happened to the defoliant, the GAO reported the presence of Agent Orange-like chemicals on the island, as have other studies.
The GAO report offered a reminder that the multi-billion-dollar disaster of Agent Orange from a half-century ago lingers even though the government has paid benefits to nearly 570,000 veterans and 200,000 survivors for Agent Orange-related illnesses, records show.
What’s more, the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up Agent Orange contamination around the world. Congress appropriated $222 million through last year to clean up hot spots in Vietnam, and a report last month by the Congressional Research Service cited a government estimate that cleaning up a single airfield near Saigon could cost as much as $900 million.
The GAO put its finger on the problem of many veterans denied disability benefits: shoddy government record-keeping. The Pentagon’s record of Agent Orange locations outside of Vietnam “is inaccurate and incomplete,” the report said.
“Without a reliable list with complete and accurate information, and a formal process for the Defense Department and VA to coordinate on communicating this information, veterans and the public do not have quality information about the full extent of locations where Agent Orange was present and where exposure could potentially have occurred,” the report said.
In 1991, president George H.W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law, providing benefits to Vietnam-era veterans with symptoms of 14 ailments associated with exposure to the dangerous defoliant, including cancers and heart disease. An estimated 18-20 million gallons of herbicides including Agent Orange, were sprayed over three million acres of land to destroy enemy cover in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in Operation Ranch Hand from 1961-1972.
But a decade later, the VA excluded Navy veterans who served on ships offshore, contending there was insufficient evidence their health problems stemmed from their Vietnam service.
The bill that passed unanimously in the House was sinking in the Senate under the weight of opposition from the VA. The veterans’ agency claimed that the legislation could cost the government over $6 billion in the coming decade, require new staff to handle tens of thousands of claims and set a precedent for providing benefits absent clear scientific proof their ailments were war-related.
A protest march in Washington this month and a hand-carried plea to the White House asking President Donald Trump to intervene thus far could not overcome concerns of Senate fiscal hawks.
On Dec. 10, sponsors failed on the Senate floor to dislodge the bill from committee and pass it unanimously. Two GOP senators — Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Mike Lee of Utah — invoked a parliamentary procedure that prevented further action, according to veterans’ advocates.
“It is dumbfounding to me,” said Navy veteran Richard Shafer, of Crosby, a radarman on a ship that anchored in Da Nang Harbor in Vietnam. Like other Navy veterans, he contends that he was poisoned by shipboard water systems polluted by Agent Orange, which the VA disputes.
Shafer has suffered from prostate cancer, systemic heart disease and Type 2 diabetes – illnesses associated with Agent Orange – but the VA rejected his compensation claim.
“This is a cold case, understand, what happened 50-some years ago. The VA is supposed to be an advocate for the veteran. But they’ve done everything they can to stop this legislation.”
Guam Veterans press VA to acknowledge herbicides’ harm
Bill Heilner, of San Antonio, is a Marine veteran who served four years in Guam in the 1980s, advancing to platoon sergeant for a 70-marine guard. He recalls the barren earth from herbicides near the barracks and “dead zones” abutting the jungle.
Heilner, 57, has suffered from an array of health problems he believes resulted from his service, including two types of thyroid cancer, diabetes and multiple tumors, one encapsulated now in a nerve in his cranium.
He credits VA doctors in San Antonio with the care that has kept him alive. But he is troubled by the government’s refusal to take responsibility for contamination in Guam.
“The levels of contaminants are some of the highest in the world and the Department of Defense needs to own up to it. I understand the system is taxed, but if we can afford to do so much for so many people, we need to do more for our own,” he said.
It will fall to the new Congress to determine how soon, and how fully, the government addresses ongoing damage from Agent Orange.
Over the years, the VA has awarded “service connection” – the key to disability benefits — to fewer than 11,000 veterans who claimed illness from Agent Orange outside of Vietnam and turned down nearly 60,000. As of June 30, 23,400 claims were pending, according to the GAO.
Fewer than two dozen Guam veterans are believed to have been awarded benefits. They include Lonnie Kilpatrick, a Florida veteran who prevailed last spring after an eight-year fight when the VA reversed itself a month before he died under pressure from Congress.
Guam veterans aren’t waiting for Congress to act. On December 3, Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc., a Louisiana-based nonprofit, filed a formal request for rulemaking that will require the VA to determine declare whether Guam veterans as a group should qualify for benefits. The request also covers veterans stationed on contaminated Johnston Island in the Pacific, where Agent Orange drums were stored in the 1970s.
Former Navy commander John Wells, a lawyer who filed the request on behalf of veterans, described it as a step in what likely will become a lawsuit against the VA.
“They may come back and say there’s no evidence Agent Orange was used in Guam,” Wells said. “But there’s evidence that herbicides with the same chemical components were used. And that’s a distinction without a difference.”
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