27 October 2011

VA Teleconference re: C-123 & Agent Orange

Conference with VA Officials Held 1100 Hrs 27 Oct

We had our conference with the VA's Environmental Health and Benefits Administration folks today, and boy, I got handed my head on a plate.

But most graciously! Thanks to Brooks Tucker, Sen. Burr's staffer and Mr. Carter Moore from the VA's Congressional Liaison Office, Dr. Michael Peterson, Chief of the VA's Environmental Health and reps from the Veterans Benefits Office, supported by many of their very knowledgeable professionals, discussed the wide range of C-123 Agent Orange issues. Bottom line: they feel we have no basis for argument.

For over an hour these folks explained the finer details of dioxin exposure and answered, with grace and patience, my layman's questions. It was great to learn that Dr. Peterson is a retired AF 06, Brooks and Carter are combat veterans, and another physician on Peterson's staff is herself a "tanker doc"...former AF flight surgeon.

Dr. Peterson noted that I'd developed the same type cancer as my father and that familial history plays a role, meaning medical issues. I interjected that indeed it does...I have our family history of five generations of military service, of being warriors, and that I am more proud of that than worried about familial medical trends. 

Are these nice folks against us? No, they are not. However, not a single suggestion was made about how we can get help, other than to go back to the Air Force. The references to "gray area" seemed always to mean not that the benefit of the doubt would rest with the veteran but instead, the VA.

Are they going to help us? No, they are not. They will create every obstacle possible to prevent our claims, having promised "We cannot permit C-123 claims." Not unless convinced of new scientific evidence, or in response to new laws, or in response to the Air Force stating that our aircraft were contaminated with dioxin when we flew and that we were contaminated thereby. Again, not a single suggestion of how anything can be interpreted in support of our position. Their mission yesterday was to oppose us, not support us.

As followers of our blog know, we point to the 1994 AF study of Patches which reports 100 of the swipe samples positive for dioxin, and describes Patches as "heavily contaminated." VHA dismisses that with an explanation that samples were taken using solvents, and the hazmat precautions recommended were because restoration personnel were likely to be grinding metal and doing other dust-creating activities. 

They were not receptive to our response that solvents were used to gather swipe samples because that was the testing protocol selected by the investigators back in 1994, not receptive to the argument that even our skin has solvents on it to which which dioxin would love to attach, or that dioxin-laden dust would be ingested from the dust constantly created in working the aircraft, in its vibration aloft, hard landings and other workaday causes. 

Dr. Peterson explained, along with VBA, that the VA has to look at PROBABILITY. In big, capital letters. Unlike "boots on the ground" Vietnam veterans and Blue Water Navy vets, both of which groups have their presumptive exposure established by law, we must prove the probability that, not only were the aircraft contaminated, but that we were actually exposed thereby. That there was somehow physical introduction of dioxin into our bodies. A vector.

And that they maintain is a case yet to be made. The VA dismisses the 1994 Weisman-Porter study of Patches, saying it has no specific relevance to our 1972-1982 duty days (tests from the other years were not discussed). 

I kept asking whether or not a veteran is obliged to prove only two points...dioxin contamination and Agent Orange presumptive illness, and I believe their negative answer is built around the big obstacle...probability. Not possibility.

My points offered: multiple AF tests stressing the aircraft being "heavily contaminated, extremely hazardous, extremely dangerous, extremely contaminated" and "a threat to public health". Two authors of four reports the VA provided us stated, yesterday by telephone, that no inference could be drawn one way or the other regarding aircrew exposure 1972-1982, leaving most of the cards on the table being the Air Force's own tests.

It seems to boil down to the Air Force. We'd hoped to have two very knowledgeable experts join the teleconference to explain what they earlier told me was their continuing belief that their tests had relevance to our aircrew exposure years earlier. The two gentlemen did not call in to participate. We were offered the skillful and generous support of Dr. Fred Berman, head of the Toxicology Department of Oregon Health Sciences University who contributed mightily to our position.

Dr. Berman has spent months studying the Air Force reports and written the Secretary of the Air Force that aircrew dioxin exposure aboard the C-123 was "most likely." Not just possible or theoretical, but MOST LIKELY. Columbia University School of Public Health and others concur.

This hour-long conference concluded with an understanding that the next move belongs to the Air Force. Without DOD stating that the crews were aboard dioxin-contaminated aircraft, VA won't budge towards service-connection. Without the Air Force stating that their tests "most likely" indicate the probability of aircrew exposure, the VA sticks with its view that no exposure happened.

So remember, dear readers, that the Air Force (Secretary of the Air Force as well as Surgeon General of the Air Force) has directed us to turn to the VA to get help on our C-123 aircrew dioxin exposure. The VA has told us to turn to the Air Force to get help on our C-123 aircrew dioxin exposure. Catch 22

That's right...there's only one catch: Catch 22. The VA would consider allowing us Agent Orange medical care if the AF says we've been exposed. The AF says "Go talk to the VA!"
Yossarian - frustrated C-123 flyer!

When Brooks Tucker asked if the VA and AF were talking, there seemed to have been such conversations. When I asked if the VA would directly solicit an Air Force response, that wasn't of interest. 

If only we'd had the authors of the Patches study on the phone with us. Hopefully, we can ask for their input, then ask the AF to stand behind all the reports that Brooks and the School of Aerospace Medicine have done over the years. I know both of them care and are sincere.

The folks from the VA are extremely experienced at dealing with Agent Orange issues. One gets the feeling they are expert enough to construct a truthful argument one way or the other if they wanted to. They have decades of background, not only in their professions, but in explaining to Congress and veterans the whys and wherefores of dioxin exposure. They can always toss bigger missiles against us.

So we turn back to AFRC/CC General Stenner and the AF Chief of Staff and ask that they not leave our flyers alone in this struggle.  Where's our wingman? 

Air Force, get behind us, ask the report authors to explain the relevance of their studies to aircrew exposure, and simply get VA to designate "boots on the airplane" as adequate presumptive eligibility for our crews! 

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