12 February 2013

Oregon State Director of Veterans Affairs AGAIN Asked to Support C-123 Claims

Last year, we asked Oregon's Director of Veterans Affairs, Mr. Jim Willis, to support C-123 veterans' claims regarding Agent Orange exposure. His leadership is essential, both in the state and through his leadership positions in the National State Directors of Veterans Affairs. The previous national director, Dr. Linda Schwartz, Commissioner of Veterans Affairs for the State of Connecticut, had suggested we contact Mr. Willis. As an Oregon veteran who'd met Mr. Willis at various ceremonies, I sought his help.

And I was very surprised that he declined. After a year of many requests, phone calls, emails and mailings of our 300-page binder of Air Force documentation, Mr. Willis' office finally responded that he was not "persuaded" of any merit to our request. I'm amazed, and in particular, because the issue had already been carefully examined by Oregon Health Science University's Toxicology Program, which found that our aircrews were indeed exposed to Agent Orange. And we'd already had our situation vetted by both the American Legion and the Vietnam Veterans of America after their careful investigation, and each passed national resolutions demanding recognition of our claims by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Does Mr. Willis, as a state official, require even more official state agencies to vet our C-123 issues? Will he accept University of Oregon if he won't accept OSHU?

This situation with the Oregon DVA was very troubling. In particular, because the American Legion uses Oregon's state Department of Veterans Affairs to represent our Legionnaires' claims. If Director Willis, acting on behalf of the American Legion in representing a veteran's claim isn't "persuaded" with evidence from the State of Oregon (OHSU) why should the VA believe us? And why does Director Willis seem to have such a very high threshold of "persuasion" before he will assist an Oregon veteran? Was he able to rely of scientific materials other than those provided by Oregon Health Sciences University or did he find fault with their investigation of the C-123 contamination? I don't know.

So, I have requested that Director Willis review his decision to avoid helping us. Last week, the following letter was sent to the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, with a closing request that if Director Willis remains unpersuaded, that we be allowed to present our request for state help to his department's board of advisors.

--the text of our Association's letter to Director Willis:

Dear Director Willis,
Thank you for your note regarding Ed VanDyke’s new position as Deputy Director. I appreciate his earlier representation of me before the VA in both his ODVA and American Legion capacities. Earlier this year, your office wrote to convey your decision that you were not “persuaded” to assist disabled C-123 veterans such as me in our effort to gain service connection from the VA for Agent Orange exposure while serving aboard our contaminated C-123 transports. 
We earlier gained endorsement of our issue from Dr. Linda Schwartz, Commissioner of Veterans Affairs in Connecticut, when she was president of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs. It was she who recommended I approach you. Dr. Schwartz is also a retired USAF flight nurse who flew with us on our C-123s…she knows our situation well.  
We also have been fortunate to have Senator Merkely and Congresswoman Bonamici pressing the VA on this issue. As I wrote in my original request to Director Willis, Oregon Health Sciences University completed a detailed study of the C-123 contamination and concluded we were exposed. The CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that “aircrews operating in this, and similar environments, were exposed.” (Dr. Tom Sinks, Deputy Director). NIH, when asked their input, deferred to Dr. Sink’s opinion as the appropriate source for such a finding. Thus we have the very agencies responsible for determining contamination and exposure issues confirming our exposure, yet the VA ignoring those agency’s input. 
Before turning to you to seek assistance, the validity of our situation was confirmed by both the Vietnam Veterans of America and the American Legion, each of which passed national resolutions calling on the VA to grant service connection. More recently Dr. Linda Birnbaum of the NIH briefed senators’ staffers to explain the science involved about our exposure for the decade we flew them after the Vietnam War. In November, ten scientists and five physicians, from two federal agencies and many universities challenged VA improper and unscientific conclusions reached in opposing C-123 claims. Dr. Birnbaum in 2011 confirmed our veterans' exposure, and as Director of the NIH National Toxicology Program she certainly has the credentials to make that determination. 
The Air Force Reserve Command has confirmed in their June 2011 FOIA response that the aircraft we flew were, in fact, the specific airplanes used in Vietnam for spraying Agent Orange, that proof joining the two Air Force Armstrong Labs tests which concluded in 1979 and 1994 that our aircraft were “heavily contaminated” and “a danger to public health. I have substantiated my own flying hours aboard several of our flying squadron (731st Tactical Airlift Squadron) assigned C-123s, identified as former spray aircraft. I have provided medical nexus letters from my cardiologist as well as Dr. Arnold Schecter, University of Texas Medical School, perhaps the most respected physician in this field.
The VA concedes our aircraft were contaminated but suggests it was minimal, however “minimal” is not a part of the 1991 law nor C.F.R.s in which exposed veterans outside Vietnam were to be treated the same as veterans with boots on the ground. They contest our effort to gain service connection by maintaining that we were not exposed in the airplane…a novel approach not taken before by any federal agency because contamination has always equaled exposure in decision-making cycles.
In toxicology, "exposure" is a separate issue from "contamination", and we have provided the VA scientific proof of exposure via dermal (primary) and inhalation (secondary) routes, and thus, with the established aircraft contamination and whatever Agent Orange-presumptive illnesses a veteran may have, satisfy the requirements set by the law and detailed in the C.F.R.s. When asked their view of our exposure on the C-123, EPA told us “exposure is the contact with a chemical or biological agent and the outer boundary of an organism.” 
Therefore, we have evidenced both contamination and exposure. At least, according to science and medicine, but it seems not to the VA. Again, law does not describe how much dioxin nor the type of dioxin nor the type of exposure to dioxin. The VA’s arbitrary, and for them, customary insertion of additional qualifications to these areas solely to prevent our veterans’ service connection claims is unlawful. 
Recently, my own 2011 application for Agent Orange benefits (our “poster child” claim because I’m already 100% VA and military disabled and thus argue our case without expectation of benefit), while recommended for approval by the Portland VARO, was denied in Washington because, according to the Compensation Division, “TCDD has not actually been shown to cause long-term health problems.” Every other VA document describes the dangers of TCDD, and TCDD is acknowledged to be the most toxic toxin on earth…but not in the perspective of C-123 exposure, according to the VA.
I had the opportunity to brief the Institute of Medicine Agent Orange Committee on our situation on 16 January 2013, and they were amazed that a VA decision-maker still expressed such views decades into the Agent Orange issue. As a veteran, faced with intransigence such as this, I become convinced that the VA seems determined to prevent our claims, however valid. At the March 2012 meeting with VA Public Health and VA Post-Deployment in Senator Burr’s office, VA leaders actually stated they won’t allow C-123 Agent Orange claims. Layers upon layers of proof supporting our claims have been submitted without effect, and there the matter seems to rest, until we gain the attention and support of leaders like the Oregon Director of Veterans Affairs.
 I am not sure what further convincing evidence Oregon requires to gain the State’s assistance and support on this issue. As an Oregon 100% disabled war veteran, I believe I am entitled to turn you as our state’s director to represent me and others like me through leadership in the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs and in veterans affairs in general. 
I need that support now, please. I am again forwarding the various documents that I feel establish our case for both contamination and exposure, and trust they are convincing. If you do not find yourself persuaded, then as the chairman of the C-123 Veterans Association I ask that you bring this issue to the attention of the advisory board for their input and afford me an opportunity to meet with them. 
/s/ Wesley T. Carter, Chair 
Major, USAF Retired, Medical Service Corps

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