25 April 2013

VA: Help the C-123 Veterans Find a Way - process isn't supposed to be adversarial

Hey, VA. How about giving us a hand? What can VA do to help C-123 veterans establish our claims for exposure to military herbicides? Can any VA manager claim to have done anything to help us establish our claims? Why, even when a regional office like Portland writes for an advisory opinion because they're inclined to award service connection, does VA VBA take pains to shoot down the claim?

On that advisory opinion, VBA's attitude stands out. Over 100 pieces of supporting information were provided by the veteran in what was called by Portland "a plethora of supporting documentation" which then VBA's advisory opinion described as "a few." Well, how many supporting documents is a veteran required to submit to achieve "benefit of the doubt?" Then to insure the claim's denial, the VBA advisory ignored the veteran's exposure confirmation from the US Public Health Service, EPA, NIH and the CDC/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. VBA wrote that opinions from scientists were not to be accepted, only physician's, but it then proceeded to ignore the physicians whose opinions confirmed the veteran's exposure.

To then guarantee the veteran's claim denial, the VBA finally also recommended denial for Agent Orange benefits because Agent Orange "hasn't been shown to cause long-term health problems." As the author of this blog I have to cite issues of my own claim because I know of only one other...appropriately, privacy laws keep me from accessing other C-123 veteran's claims, but I have to assume they are treated as negatively as my own which, along with another officer's we've advanced as our "poster child" claims. Back in 2011, we'd thought that a successful claim would provide president for others, and we know now that only CAVC three-judge decisions do that.

BTW, I was asked twice by VA leadership, since I'm already 100% disabled from Gulf War injuries, why I'm pushing the C-123 claims, mine included. Mine, and a few others like LtCol Paul Bailey, were early in because, first, it is our right to do so!  We learned of our exposure first and submitted claims hoping to uncover a path for our other veterans to follow. Without my own claim and the VA's responses, I'd have nothing to work with to help our membership. What bugs me is that I am pretty good at pushing paper and taking care of my issues, but not all veterans are - we all have our specialities and this can be mine, so I'll do the research, the typing, the mailings, phone reporters, read scientific journals, make trips, learn various computer skills like making YouTube videos (not too hard, actually...if you don't care about being too professional). I can just imagine how many eligible veterans fall by the wayside because they don't have the opportunity to self-advocate, and the VA certainly can't be counted on to help!

But I yell to all who will hear - veterans aren't supposed to be forced into this years-long struggle! Injured or sick, we should be turning to our medical issues and our families and trying to get our lives into something like they should be without these injuries and illnesses. Believe me, I had better things to be doing these last two years than trying to get the VA to do its job!

VA stonewalling, especially in the face of what any observer would consider overwhelming evidence supporting our exposure claims, is simply unconscionable. Wrong. Illegal. Mean.

VA is supposed to help veterans perfect their claims. The process is supposed to be supportive and not adversarial, and yet in two years we haven't had a bit of help other than two courtesy contacts . The 2011 teleconference and 2012 meeting at the Senate Hart Building were stark contests between two opposing sides, not a gathering of VA processionals dedicated to helping veterans establish legitimate claims.

We have mounds of evidence from other federal agencies, universities, independent scientists and even our own VA physicians - all unacceptable to VA's Health Benefits Administration. All perfectly convincing at a BVA hearing if we live that long. No BVA or CAVC judge is going to dismiss the finding by the Director and Deputy Director of the ATSDR that we've been exposed, or that of Dr. Schecter, or that of Dr. Birnbaum, or that of Dr. Stellman, or that of Dr. Berman - and so many more!

I can only hope somebody in authority looks back at the evidence gathered by the C-123 veterans and challenges VA leadership to explain why the big push from 810 Vermont and 1800 G Street to make sure our claims are denied.

Why make us wait? Can't VA simply follow the law? Why since Day One has VA opposed our claims, approaching us with a knee-jerk automatic predetermination that we must be opposed, rather than supported?

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