24 October 2013

More: Congressional Support...or lack of it...for C-123 Veterans. Where is Rep. Neal?

Susanne Bonamici, D-OR
Although Westover Air Reserve Base (Chicopee, Massachusetts) is located in his district, and although most of the Agent Orange-exposed veterans are his own constituents, Congressman Richard Neal has declined to sign his colleague Suzanne Bonamici's letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Bonamici led a bipartisan effort in the House urging the VA to acknowledge C-123 veterans' exposure claims, submitting their letter to the Secretary on October 23, 2013.

A parallel Senate effort has been led by Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

A large squadron of the C-123 troop transports was stationed at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee between 1972-1982. The C-123 was the aircraft used for spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam, and Air Force tests revealed in 1994 that 34 of the warplanes remained contaminated through the decade of use following that conflict. The aircrews, aeromedical evacuation crews and maintenance personnel were exposed to dioxin, the toxin in Agent Orange, by skin contact and inhalation of dioxin-laden dust.

As the Congressional letter noted, the veterans' exposure has been confirmed by numerous other federal agencies, including the CDC and National Institutes of Health, yet the VA declines to provide essential medical care and other benefits. 

VA utilizes their unusual in-house definition of "exposed" (one unique among federal agencies and scientific societies and disputed by EPA, CDC and NIH) to skirt requirements under the Agent Orange Act of 1991. That law requires VA to care for Agent Orange veterans. In the agency's dealing with C-123 veterans, VA has added a requirement for proof of individual exposure to Agent Orange tied to resultant specific illnesses, termed "medical nexus." 

VA's special definition effectively denies all C-123 veterans' claims of exposure because such proofs are not possible for individuals, and only possible for larger groups when evaluated by epidemiological specialists. Congress removed this virtually impossible individual burden of proof for Vietnam veterans by passing the Agent Orange Act. Title 38 and the Federal Register of 8 May 2001, page 23166, detail that VA will care for any veteran exposed to "military herbicide,' thus VA's special definition of "exposed" was created to bar C-123 veterans from care.

Rep. Richie Neal, D-MA
Representatives of The C-123 Veterans Association, visiting with Congressman Neal in his office in March 2013 were personally assured of his support, although no action seems to have been taken by his office in furtherance of that commitment . Neither have local Massachusetts C-123 veterans been successful seeking his assistance, and Neal's absence from the list of Congressional signers to this letter is disconcerting. 

Veterans suffering Agent Orange illnesses, such as prostate cancer, heart disease, peripheral neuropathy, ALS and otherrecognized ailments continue to hope that Congressman Neal, like so many of his colleagues in the House and Senate, eventually notice their situation and lend his support. Given the veterans' severe illnesses and age averaging in the late 60s, Mr. Neal's help would be useful sooner, rather than later.

Why is it left for the able Congresswoman from Oregon to lead this effort which should have had Congressman Neal's early and enthusiastic intervention with the Department of Veterans Affairs? Where is the voice of Westover's Congressman? How serious do our illnesses need to be to warrant his concern?
Then-Mayor Richard Neal with then-Captain Wes Carter, Springfield, 1991

Note: I first met Mr. Neal the night of the Springfield chlorine incident, when I was the first medical officer responding to the city's request for military assistance. Later, Mayor Neal honored all of the 439th Military Airlift Wing personnel who helped that stressful night, and later still, I met him at various city events. Lastly, we spoke in his Washington office where I sought his guidance and assistance for his district's veterans. 

As with the other C-123 veterans who've sought his help, including his constituents, many subsequent letters and requests have been unanswered, although his staff had asked me to detail the situation for them. Apparently, requests for Congressman Neal's comments from Springfield's The Republican newspaper have also been ignored. 

The Congressman is an able legislator so there must be a significant political reason for his avoidance of this issue. But for us as dioxin-exposed veterans, there is no avoidance possible.

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