Published today, in The Oregonian, principal newspaper of Oregon and southern Washington State:
Many veterans suffering from diseases linked to Agent Orange still can't get disability compensation
As a "blue water sailor," Ralph Steele has a higher burden to prove Agent Orange-related illnesses than his counterparts who served ashore. (Motoya Nakamura / The Oregonian)
Forty years after the last U.S. troops left Vietnam, military veterans continue to tussle with the Department of Veterans Affairs over whether they should be compensated for their exposure to the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange.
Under Secretary Eric Shinseki, himself a Vietnam veteran, the agency has taken enormous strides to acknowledge that exposure to the toxic defoliant caused a variety of health problems, from birth defects to Type II diabetes to lung cancer. Shinseki has been applauded for adding more diseases, including Parkinson's and heart disease, to the list of maladies presumed to have been caused by Agent Orange. The expansion could make as many as 200,000 Vietnam War veterans eligible for compensation.
Yet the reach of the herbicide, which contains toxic dioxin, extends beyond the classes of U.S. military veterans now presumed by the VA to be suffering ill health. Vietnamese people, too, have been afflicted with a range of diseases associated with Agent Orange. And even among U.S. veterans, gaps in recognition and compensation remain.
Among those who have fought with limited success for disability compensation are the people who flew in aircraft carrying Agent Orange, are so-called "blue water sailors" who didn't set foot in Vietnam but who say they ingested the chemical, and people who served during the war in South Korea, where the defoliant was also used.McMinnville's Wes Carter, a retired Air Force Reservist who served aboard a C-123 aircraft that sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War, has made himself into an expert on the Air Force's handling of C-123s, including the one he flew.
While the war had ended by the time Carter flew aboard the aircraft, he remembers the terrible chemical stink that forced the crew to fly the unpressurized craft with windows and sometimes doors open. At his website, c123kcancer.blogspot.com, he has compiled extensive documentation that shows his aircraft and others were contaminated with toxins. Yet the Air Force destroyed the aircraft in 2010 specifically because they were toxic, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has not acknowledged a connection between the aircraft and Agent Orange-related diseases, citing no aircraft to test.
Carter has suffered heart attacks and been afflicted with prostate cancer. He and other members of his C-123 crew "were more likely as not to have been exposed to excessive levels of dioxins," Dr. Fred Berman, director of Oregon Health and Science University's CROET Toxicology Information Center, wrote in a May 2011 letter to the Secretary of the Air Force and the C-123 veterans. Berman said the aircraft flown by Carter and the others were considered to be "heavily contaminated" with dioxins.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has written to the VA about the C-123 veterans, urging Shinseki and to the VA's Inspector General to reconsider the VA's stance on claims by C-123 crew members.
Merkley noted that, despite evidence of extensive contamination of the aircraft, VA representatives "have stated that it is not possible that C-123 air crews were exposed to dioxin because the residues had dried" -- a position Merkley said other experts had called "seriously flawed." He asked that the VA evaluate each disability compensation claim on its own merits.
"Regardless of how a veteran gets exposed to Agent Orange, they still need to be treated fairly by the VA," Merkley said this week through a spokesperson. "A veteran who later flew planes that had been used to spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War is still sick even if his Agent Orange exposure was non-traditional."
The VA didn't respond to requests for comment about Merkley's letter or Carter's case.
Ralph Steele of Southeast Portland was what the Navy calls "a blue water sailor" aboard the USS Oriskany aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. The VA has said it can't conclude whether blue water sailors were exposed to dangerous levels of Agent Orange. But Steele said he has no doubt that the crew of the Oriskany, which cruised on extended stints in the Gulf of Tonkin, literally bathed in it.
"All that stuff came out in the ocean. We took it in our evaporators. We ate it, we drank it, we showered in it, we washed our clothes in it."
Steele said he has suffered two heart attacks and a stroke and has contracted diabetes and has an enlarged prostate. He has a 10 percent disability rating for tinnitus related to being around military aircraft, but he hasn't received any Agent Orange-related compensation. He, too, has spoken with Merkley's staff about his case.
In response to a question about blue water sailors, a VA spokeswoman said “The 2011 Institute of Medicine report determined that there is currently insufficient scientific evidence for VA to warrant an extension of a presumption of exposure to herbicides such as Agent Orange to Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans. However, VA will continue to accept and review all Blue Water Vietnam Veteran claims on a case-by-case basis.”
Beaverton's Ron Weber was an enlisted man in the Army during the Vietnam War, but he served at Camp Casey in South Korea. In 2011, the VA widened its allowance for presumptive Agent Orange claims to include veterans who served near Korea's demilitarized zone.
But, said Weber, there's a "huge crevasse" between the VA acknowledging that veterans were exposed to Agent Orange in Korea and granting disability compensation because of it. He has fought for years to get his disability rating for diabetes raised to 20 percent and said he has become known in the Agent Orange community as one of the few who has won disability compensation based on his service in Korea. He says he receives a dozen emails a day from people asking for advice.
"I can't handle all the requests," he said. "The ones that kill me the most are from children and spouses."
He said they tell him they didn't realize their loved one's behavior or sicknesses may have resulted from exposure to chemicals sprayed by U.S. forces. They say they wish they had.