The national president of the Vietnam Veterans of America is calling for bureaucrats from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to be "relieved of their duties" for their continuing failure to grant benefits to veterans from Westover Air Reserve Base and three other military installations who were exposed to Agent Orange while flying planes previously used in the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam Veterans of America has been a strong supporter of the C-123 Veterans.
The two page letter expressed frustration over the fact that the veterans, who flew C-123 Provider planes after they had been used to spray Agent Orange to defoliate the Vietnamese countryside, have been fighting a four-year battle to receive medical benefits and disability payments for those who have fallen ill or become ill later.
"These VA bureaucrats attempting to delay justice ought to be relieved of their duties so they can no longer abuse veterans with their tactic of 'delay, deny until they die.' There is no excuse for why these worthy veterans are still not being treated with the appreciation and the respect their service warrants," John Warren, national president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, wrote.
He said the delay is especially vexing after an Institute of Medicine study commissioned by the Department of Veterans' Affairs determined that the about 2,100 military reservists who flew in or worked on the planes at Westover, Pittsburgh Air National Guard, Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Ohio and Hanscom Air Force Base in eastern Massachusetts, had been exposed to Agent Orange and are vulnerable to contracting the more than 20 diseases tied to the chemical.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is continuing to study the Institute of Medicine report, said Meagan Lutz, public affairs specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"In order to better inform and serve our veterans, the Department is examining policy and legislative issues in order to proceed with its final proposal," she said in an email. (note: different VA executives and public affairs spokespersons have offered a wide range of reasons for VA's delay; Ms. Lutz is the first to suggest the delay is to "better serve" veterans by continuing to refuse them medical care!)
Led by Retired Maj. Wesley T. Carter, now of Colorado, who served as an air medical technician and flight instructor and examiner with Westover's 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron for 20 years, the C-123 group is made up mainly of Westover veterans and has been fighting for the same benefits as those who served in Vietnam. They only discovered four years ago.the planes, which they spent 10 years flying in and working on, had been contaminated with Agent Orange since Vietnam.
The federal government automatically grants anyone who served in Vietnam, even for an hour, health benefits which includes free medications, dental care and other services, and disability payments if they fall ill from any of the diseases known to be caused by Agent Orange.
Also included in the list of supporters is the National Veterans of Foreign Wars. In February six senators, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, a Democrat and Republican respectively, who have been advocating for the veterans for several years, as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, also signed a strongly-worded to the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to show their support.
"I think it is high time this battle, which has gone on for four years, is over," said Archer Battista, of Belchertown, who retired from Westover as a colonel in 2001 and is a semi-retired lawyer.
Battista, who flew planes at Westover starting in 1974, said he has been trying to help some veterans and their families who are completely overwhelmed by trying to fight the battle for medical care. As a Vietnam veteran, he is already eligible for the benefits.
"All this time the clock is ticking on some very sick people and their survivors," he said. "We know they have a decision and the decision is favorable so what is holding this up?"
It is even more frustrating since there is a second part to the battle. The C-123 Veterans are still trying to acquire squadron rosters with the names of veterans who flew on or worked on the planes at the four bases so they can contact as many veterans as possible to warn them they had been exposed to Agent Orange.
So far all requests to the Air Force have been denied.
reporter: Jeanette DeForge