29 October 2015

Western Massachusetts lawyer Archer Battista honored for work helping Westover veterans exposed to Agent Orange

Four years ago, Archer Battista's friend from the Air Force noticed that the men he flew with at Westover Air Reserve Base were coming down with the same diseases as men who had been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Although the Westover veterans had not all fought in Vietnam, they had, in the years after the Vietnam War, flown and maintained the planes used to spray Agent Orange, a carcinogenic chemical used to destroy vegetation in Southeast Asia.

Battista, a lawyer and Air Force veteran living in Belchertown who flew in Vietnam and at Westover, set out to convince the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide the same benefits to these peacetime veterans as to veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

"That's when the battle started," Battista said. "The VA was just damned if it was going to expand not simply the list of diseases but the groups who are entitled to eligibility for VA healthcare, eligibility for VA financial aid. They fought us for four-and-a-half years."

On Wednesday, Battista, 69, was given an award by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recognizing his pro bono work.

"He stands out as a leader by example, one who brings out the very best of those around him and the legal profession as a whole," said SJC Associate Justice Geraldine Hines, who presented the award.

Battista said he got involved in the Agent Orange issue after getting a call from a former Air Force colleague named Wes Carter. Carter noticed that people they had flown with were coming down with diseases that have been connected to Agent Orange exposure – things like prostate cancer and type 2 diabetes.

"These are our friends. These are our family," Battista said. "These are people we flew with for five, 10, 20, 30 years who are now coming down with the same diseases as the guys who had a tour in Vietnam."

Battista said people like him, who saw combat in Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange there, do not have to fight for their Veterans Affairs benefits. He wanted the same for those peacetime veterans who flew the planes that dumped Agent Orange.

"These are our friends. These are our family." Working against intrenched VA opposition "was a hell of a fight," Battista said.

It was not until this June that the Department of Veterans Affairs finally granted medical and disability benefits to the approximately 1,500 to 2,100 troops who flew these planes, if they were to develop diseases related to Agent Orange.

"This effort, which has had a national impact on thousands of veterans and their survivors would have been impossible without the dedication of Col. Battista's ongoing work," Hines said.

The award from the Supreme Judicial Court was also given to Battista in recognition of his work starting a veterans' court in Holyoke, which will serve Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties. The court is scheduled to open Nov. 4 and will accept criminal cases in which the defendant served in the military. A judge will guide veterans to get help for issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or sexual assault. The defendants will be paired with other veterans as mentors.

"Our goal is not to leave any veteran behind," Battista said.

Jeff Morneau, president of the Hampden County Bar Association, said Battista is well-respected by the bar association and the Western Massachusetts legal community.

"I really don't think there's anybody more deserving of this award than Arch Battista," Morneau said. "He has throughout his career distinguished himself not only as an advocate, but as somebody who has dedicated himself and others to the commitment of pro bono work."

SJC Associate Justice Francis Spina, of Pittsfield, said Battista is "terribly deserving" of the award. "He's a wonderful candidate, he's a great lawyer, and he's just a fabulous human being," Spina said.

Spina praised Battista's work helping veterans. "They're people who have given up their lives for us, and their health and their safety, and we just have a tremendous obligation to see that they are properly cared for," Spina said.

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