The Secretary wasn't pleased.
Sunday morning reading his paper and enjoying his coffee, the VA took another hit on the chin with a critical newspaper article. On Page One.
It had made the Washington Post on August 3 2013. An in-depth report about C-123 veterans and the impossible barriers VA put in front of us when submitting Agent Orange disability claims. The Post's report featured Westover veterans Major Wes Carter and LtCol Paul Bailey in telling the post-Vietnam C-123 Agent Orange exposure saga.
And it wasn't just a report. It was the front page Sunday edition, plus all of page 14 in the front section. That much coverage isn't mere presentation of the facts, but an editorial statement of the seriousness with which a publisher views the issue. And this was the Washington Post! The paper than can bring down presidents...and has.
Unknown to reporter Steve Vogel, who'd investigated the problem for months, the Manchester Veterans Affairs Regional Office at about the same time had reviewed Paul Bailey's initially denied claim with a "Decision Review Officer," an optional step in appealing denied claims.
Manchester assigned a highly experienced senior claims adjudicator who considered Paul's claim with fresh eyes, and that rater saw all the proof needed to award Paul his disability claim, backdated a couple years, on August 4 2013.
Paul's claim review was moved forward a bit in the VA queue due to the fact his illness was terminal. The rater later explained the Agent Orange exposure claim was awarded on the basis of fact-proven exposure aboard Patches, proof of which Paul provided in the form of flight orders, USAF Form 5s, and sworn testimony by numerous other veterans including mine as his flight examiner. Paul had been a flight instructor with the 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron before his 1980 commission and transfer to Aerial Port duties.
Amazing! And Vogel and the Post immediately rushed to publish another report on August 8 2013 about Paul Bailey receiving the only C-123 disability award without processing through the several-year appeal process at the Board of Appeals for a decision by a Veterans Law Judge. Although all C-123 claims reaching BVA had been awarded the veterans, all such claims were (and continue to be) initially denied and the veteran forced into a three, sometimes four year wait for a BVA review.
But not Paul, to the great joy of his family and friends, and the satisfaction of so many legislators and fellow veterans who'd pulled hard for this fine man. Paul had received his "big brown envelope" as veterans term the VA materials mailed announcing an award. It was news his family needed...days before Paul entered hospice
I know this. He opened his envelope and called me with tears in his voice, this veteran of 33-years service with the 82nd Airborne and the Air Force, both enlisted and commissioned duty, and my best friend for forty years.
That joy wasn't the kind of emotion flowing from VA headquarters in Washington when Secretary Shinseki read the Post.
VA records released this week now reveal the Secretary's attempts to get Bailey's disability award reversed. I must say, this was a blow to my heart. For years we'd thought the bad actors in levels between us and the Secretary were at fault, feeding General Shinseki poor staff work and fulfilling their own anti-veteran bias.
But here was the Secretary of Veterans Affairs himself telling his executives that Bailey's award should be reversed, perhaps on some suggestion of error on VA's part. "Heads up," came the warning. In the newly-released memos, VA's Western Area Director, Mr. Willy Clark recounts to VA's Director of Compensation and Pension the Secretary's demand for an explanation how it happened.
Fortunately for Paul...and now, his survivors...the political impact of such folly was quickly pointed out. The Manchester authorities explained the solid justification for their decision, however even that was twisted. Veterans Benefits Administration staffers wrote that Paul's decision was highly questionable because of "only two days aboard Patches." This phrase went through many memos and emails. But it was false. Two days?
That was a single set of order for a two day cross-country mission. To cite that, VA had to overlook hundreds of other documents which also placed Paul as a qualified C-123 crewman, and later, flight instructor. This was an effort by VA staffers to trivialize a veterans' proofs, which they did by carefully selecting one sheet and ignoring stacks of others.
Paul flew former Agent Orange C-123s for many years, beginning in 1974. Year after year, he performed crew duties, moving ahead to C-123 flight instructor, and flying until 1980 when he changed duties. Six years. Hundreds of C-123 hours officially documented in Air Force Form 5s submitted with his exposure claim. The specific tail numbers of Paul's Agent Orange C-123s was confirmed by the USAF Historical Records Agency.
Amazing. A C-123 flight instructor but described by VA officials as having but two days aboard the C-123, who pushed to have his claim reversed. A highly qualified and Air Force certified C-123 flight instructor but VA memos say he had two days aboard the airplanes he trained others in. Where did VA think they were taking this except to trash a veteran's well-founded claim.
I am a historian. Reading the memos about Paul and the way the Secretary reacted, I thought of the American Colonial Congress reaching out to King George one more time, trusting their sovereign would do the right thing if only he knew the facts, and believing to the end that their troubles were due not to him, but the bureaucrats between them.
I felt such trust in General Shinseki. My trust was misplaced. Thank God the Secretary didn't, or perhaps couldn't, trash Paul Bailey's well-deserved Agent Orange disability award . But he tried.
He tried to hurt Paul. He would have but for the political consequences pointed out to him by others.