22 December 2014

Congresswoman Bonamici Asked to Challenge VA Briefing to Her in 2013

VA brief to Congresswoman Bonamici, June 6, 2013
Dear (member of staff in Congresswoman Bonamici's office)

I would like to offer our ​C-123K VETERANS Association ​perspective on the briefing provided Congresswoman Bonamici by VA in October 2013. I believe it was an improper brief in that it failed to properly inform a member of Congress regarding a specific constituent as well as the larger group, the C-123 Veterans Association, about which she and her colleagues questioned the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.​​ The VA brief was their response to the inquiry she put to the VA, dated October 23, 2013.

We sought Congresswoman Bonamici's help, not for any legislative relief, but rather asking her confrontation of VA over their failure to adhere to the law's requirements as well as VA's own as detailed in VA Manual M21-1MR. The Circuit Court ruled that VA's regulations "have the force of law." VA properly utilizes VAM21-1MR to obstruct claims lacking merit, but also ignores their regulation in the face of C-123 veterans' claims.

​• (FYI ​this overall issue has been assigned Office of Special Counsel File No. DI-15-1441. Any input others may have for OSF can be submitted to investigators citing that reference.)

​Although​ ​we were ​aware of Congresswoman Bonamici's inquiry to the VA, their response was only released to me by FOIA lawsuit last week, and was in the form of an email between Mr. Steve Westerfield of VA's Congressional Liaison and Mr. James Sampsel, dated apparently after the briefing.

Basically, VA's response was meant to ​be ​wholly negative, permitting no benefit of the doubt (of which there was an​d​ remains a great deal) to the​ir official ​position obstructing C-123 veterans' Agent Orange exposure claims. VA failed to mention that its position is opposed by several other federal agencies, including those with regulatory and statutory authority in this area (although not as regards veterans benefits.) VA's briefing was an expression of policy and not a presentation of the ​true ​breadth of a contentious issue.

It is a most serious issue, affecting VA's decision to refuse medical care for veterans claiming, with expert ​support​ from other federal agencies, Agent Orange exposure aboard their​ former Agent Orange​ C-123 transports over a ten-year period. The predictable financial loss, suffering and deaths make this an issue of urgent concern to every Oregon citizen as well as our legislative representatives.

The inadequacy of the VA briefing should be seen in light of recent VA IG reports addressing VA's "Fact Sheet" reports. I suggest, although the conclusion should be the Congresswoman's, that the briefing was deceptive and policy-driven.

​Strengthening our assertion that the VA opposition to our claims is improper is the reason VA Compensation and Pension Service has given for denying claims. The Director of that department, ordering a veteran's exposure claim denied, wrote, "In summary, there is no conclusive evidence that TCDD exposure causes any adverse health effects."

While that statement is scientifically flawed, and shown to be so even on VA web pages, denying claims which have awaited decision for over a year dooms the veterans to between three and four years in appeals to the Board of Veterans Appeals. Other VA executives, charged with challenging veterans' post-Vietnam exposure claims, actually told the Associated Press, "You have to draw the line somewhere." The same VA executive told staff members of Senator Richard Burr that VA could not permit any C-123 claim approvals.

Members of our association residing in Congressman Richard Neal's district have asked that he be invited to join Congresswoman Bonamici's inquiry. Congressman Neal's district includes Westover Air Reserve Base where most of the former Agent Orange spray planes were assigned and where the largest number of affected veterans still reside.

Among them is Master Sergeant Richard Matte. Under Secretary Hickey graciously intervened for VA's prompt reconsideration of Sergeant Matte's claim once she was informed of his heart transplant, loss of his left leg, and two massive heart attacks a couple months ago, leaving him gravely ill. Along with his other Agent Orange ailments, VA had refused every possible association of Sergeant Matte's ten years as an aircrew member aboard what Air Force toxicologists swore, under oath in federal court, were "highly contaminated on all test surfaces" and "a danger to public health.

The CDC in June advised the VA and USAF that Air Force test results made clear that aircrews and maintenance workers should actually have been flying in full HAZMAT protection, not simple cotton flight suits.

​From VA's briefing to Congresswoman Bonamici, and Secretary Shinseki's response to Senator Richard Burr on the same topic, VA admits not an ounce of doubt in favor of the veterans' exposure claims. Tellingly, VA avoids mention of the fact that other federal agencies have affirmed the veterans' exposures. CDC, NIEHS, ATSDR, USPHS, NIH, the Concerned Scientists and Physicians...all oppose VA's position, and none of this expert opposition was mentioned to Congresswoman Bonamici. Neither did VA mention the fact that opinions from Dow and Monsanto helped form the VA position against the veterans' exposure harm.

May we have an opportunity to continue this conversation, in association with ​legislative representatives from​ Vietnam Veteran of America and the American Legion?

Flawed VA C-123 Brief (internal VA summary dated Aug 2013)
C-123 Veterans Association analysis of VA Brief to Congresswoman Bonamici and her colleagues

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