31 January 2016

According to the VA glossary of terms, the terms "Environmental Contaminants" and "Gulf War Illness" are one and the same!

(Thanks for pointing this out, John. Remember, everyone, that VHA Post Deployment Health is the group which redefined "exposure" to prevent exposure claims!

– John Olin, 30 January 2016 

"Environmental Contaminants / Gulf War Illness": 
Gulf War Veterans were exposed to a wide variety of environmental hazards and potential harmful substances during their service in Southwest Asia. These include depleted uranium, pesticides, the anti-nerve gas pill pyridostigmine bromide, infectious diseases, chemical and biological warfare agents, and vaccinations (including anthrax and botulinum toxoid), and oil well free smoke and petroleum products. 

VA recognizes that there are other health risk factors encountered by Gulf War Veterans. Veterans with service during the Gulf War are eligible to receive treatment for conditions related to this service. 

If the treatment provided is for an illness or symptom that may possibly be associated with environmental contamination, copay for medical care and medication copay will not be charged. 

Conditions Associated with Environmental Contaminants: 
Persistent fatigue 
Skin rash 
Sleep disturbance 
Joint pain 
Shortness of breath/chest pain 
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis 

However, the above language was quietly removed by the VA very recently.  
It now reads: 
Environmental Contaminants: Environment hazards and potential harmful substances such as pesticides and chemical and biological warfare agents. It is very important to note that the language recently removed from the glossary of terms by VA had a huge implication on claimants co-pays. "If the treatment provided is for an illness or symptom that may possibly be associated with environmental contamination, copay for medical care and medication copay will not be charged." 

30 January 2016

"An unfortunate choice of words" – how VA denied Agent Orange claim by insisting Agent Orange is harmless

Just received from the Department of Justice: DOJ has summarized VA's response to our inquiry regarding the famous statement used by VBA Compensation and Pension to deny a C-123 veteran's claim. VA actually ordered the claim denied by insisting there is no evidence of Agent Orange and its toxic component TCDD causing human health injuries.

Now, DOJ says that was "an unfortunate choice of words." Unfortunate but still adequate, however, for VA to have denied the claim for five years!

One of the first C-123 Agent Orange exposure claims faced the determined opposition of VBA's Compensation and Pension Service, a determined opposition which continues even years later, despite all scientific evidence.

Opposition (guided by VA's go-to consultant Dr. Al Young) which has included even denying Agent Orange claims by insisting that Agent Orange is somehow harmless and that Agent Orange benefits specified by Congress in the 1991 Agent Orange Law for Agent Orange exposure with resulting Agent Orange illnesses...claims which are to be denied on the personal whim of VA staffers annoyed at veterans seeking care. (sorry for the run-on sentence.)

C&P's view was that C-123 veterans' Agent Orange exposures are to be blocked, despite meeting the requirements of the 1991 Agent Orange Act, and VA's own regulation VAM-21-1MR.

Portland's VA Regional Office forwarded a C-123 vet's claim to VBA's Agent Orange desk as required, with the field's recommendation for approval given the vast amount of supporting evidence and compliance with the law. Compensation and Pension responded with what has continued to be their blanket denial of all such claims. Here is what was just an early example of their extra-legal injection of personal attitudes into claim denials:

29 January 2016

BVA Cites VA Consultant's Flawed Reports to Deny Veteran's Disability Claim

The Board of Veterans Appeals instructed the RO to refer the case to the JSRRC to corroborate the Veteran's claimed exposure. The list of DOD Agent Orange storage, transport and testing sites was compiled in 2006 by a consultant who disagrees with the harmful effects of Agent Orange exposure. The list is considered a DOD list because it is controlled by the Armed Forces Pest Management Board but mostly used by VA to confirm or deny veterans' claims for duty in such areas.

Problem: The list hasn't been updated in nine years and even the consultant in 2012 agreed it was obsolete and required extensive updating. VA is wrong to deny claims citing such an obsolete and unreliable document. VA must have agreed because in 2012 (a year BEFORE the claim below was denied) it provided a no-bid sole source $600,000 contract to the consultant for review of all such material.

"In March 2013, the RO also contacted the U.S. Army Garrison/Armed Forces Pest Management Board and requested that they verify the use of herbicides on or around bases in Okinawa, Japan, from February 1974 to May 1976 an April 2013 Memorandum, the Armed Forces Pest Management Board (U.S. Army Garrison Forest Glen) responded that a recently published report by Dr. Alvin Young titled "Investigations into Allegations of Herbicide Orange on Okinawa, Japan" provides the most complete data available on this subject. 
Dr. Young's findings were that there were no documents or records to validate that Herbicide Orange was shipped to or through, unloaded, used or buried on Okinawa. The internet link to the full report was provided. 
VA Compensation and Pension Service has reviewed a listing of herbicide use and test sites outside Vietnam provided to VA by the Department of Defense (DoD). This list contains 71 sites within the U.S. and in foreign countries where tactical herbicides, such as Agent Orange, were used, tested, or stored. Testing and evaluations of these tactical herbicides were conducted by or under the direction of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, Fort Detrick, Maryland."

28 January 2016

Air Force Dumps C-123 Veterans in VA's Lap – Refuses ALL Assistance. Says We're VA's Problem Now.

C-123 Agent Orange – the new Catch 22.

 We asked the Air Force to consider conducting line of duty determinations to establish our exposure injuries back in the timeframe when we were flying the toxic former Agent Orange spray C-123s.

Throught Senator Burr's office, the Air Force has refused, telling us to turn to the VA for any help. The VA has already said without an Air Force line of duty determination, it will not provide us full compensation for our exposure injuries.

Catch 22: You can't fly combat because you're so scared you're
crazy, that means you're sane and so you have to fly combat 
because you're not crazy because you are crazy. 
But if you were crazy, you wouldn't have to fly combat.
Did these two organizations get together to work out this clever anti-veteran game plan ahead of time? Each points to the other, and each already knows the other will refuse us further help.

Okay, we get the idea. We're dumped.

Lesson learned?
1. Respectfully, you cannot fully accept what general officers tell you about your safety. If they are wrong and later proven incorrect, it will be the airmen abandoned and not the Air Force offering any help.
2. Do not accept what Air Force scientific organizations such as the Armstrong Labs or the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine tell you about your safety. If they're wrong and later proven incorrect, it will be the airman abandoned and not the Air Force offering any help.
3. If the authorities are wrong, it will be the airmen left to pay the price in physical suffering and financial loss, not the military.
4. Even if they put their mistaken assurances of safety in print, it means nothing in the final analysis. The Air Force will tell the airmen to get help from the VA, and the VA will say they can do nothing without an Air Force line of duty determination. Nobody does nothing. For us, it is Catch 22. A great movie but not the right way to care for real-world military aircrews.

Believe me, this has all been thought out by the VA and AF. We did our duty. We trusted our leaders. They're now proved wrong but we're left swinging in the wind.

For some leaders, "no" is just easier to say than doing what's right.

27 January 2016

VA Secretary Proposes Overhaul of Claims Appeals Process for Senate Consideration. "Fails Veterans," He Insists.

(note: my own claim submitted in 2011, denied in 2012, appealed immediately, is coming up on its third year waiting for the VA regional office to forward it for appeals, after which the Board of Veterans Appeals takes about another six months to process. If successful(?) in my appeal, the claim is returned to the regional office to begin the process all over again in hopes for a more positive outcome. The process described by Secretary McDonald is truly designed to wait out veterans remaining days..."delay, deny until they die" is how the Vietnam Veterans of America describe it.

It might not be clear to non-veterans that all the while a claim sits awaiting an initial decision and then the appeal, VA refuses all medical care and other benefits. In my case, these last five years with cancer, heart disease and other problems would have had me dead and off the VA's queue by now if I'd not had other medical care available. The longer VA delays a decision, the more money it saves.)

“Decades worth of law and policy layered upon each other have become cumbersome and clunky,” McDonald said in a statement to House lawmakers and the press. “Most importantly, it is now so antiquated that it no longer serves veterans well as many find it confusing and are frustrated by the endless process and the associated length of time it can take to get an answer.”
The Cabinet secretary he needs both legislation and resourcing to “put in place a simplified appeals process” to handle the cases in a matter of months, instead of years.
McDonald’s call echoed comments he made to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Jan. 21 during a hearing on department reforms. He said that with lawmakers’ help, officials could reduce the processing time for appeals cases to less than a year by 2020, much quicker than the current three-year average wait for decisions.
VA officials have worked in recent years to clear the backlog of first-time benefits applications after intense public criticism about the waits facing veterans seeking disability payouts.IOver the last three years, the number of cases pending for four months or more has dropped from more than 612,000 to fewer than 80,000 this week. But officials missed their publicly stated goal of reaching zero by the end of 2015.
At the same time, the number of appeals — cases where veterans believe claims processors have misunderstood the severity of their injuries and shortchanged their benefits payouts — has risen by more than one-third, to 440,000 cases.
VA officials have blamed the rise on the growing number of veterans filing benefits claims, noting the percent of cases heading to appeals has held steady at around 12 percent in recent years.
They also note that administrative moves alone to certify and transfer appeals usually take more than two years.
Veterans also have the option of adding new illnesses and disabilities as the appeals process drags on, giving them the opportunity to receive larger payouts but also lengthening the wait on decisions.
McDonald called the current wait times for veterans in the process “unacceptable.”
The VA secretary says he wants a new appeals process “with the timely and fair appeals decisions veterans deserve, and adequate resourcing.”
House lawmakers have begun work on legislation to reform the appeals process. A bill sponsored by Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, would create a “fully developed appeals” process, limiting introduction of new evidence and arguments but guaranteeing quicker processing time and decisions.
Mirror legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate in coming days. The proposal could become the basis of the type of reform McDonald wants, and has support from key lawmakers from both political parties.
But Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., last week warned that getting an overhaul plan through Congress in an election year  “will take significant legislative willpower, but it's not impossible.”
McDonald said plans are underway to move on upgraded mail systems and digitized records that will speed the process some. Staff is undergoing retraining to better handle those cases.
“But (those steps) will not be enough,” he said. “We must also look critically at the many steps in the current complex appeals process used by VA and by veterans and their advocates to design a process that better serves veterans.”

26 January 2016

Institute of Medicine Dismisses Claims of Project SHAD Medical Injuries

In the January 8 2016 release of its second review of the Navy's Project SHAD, the Institute of Medicine has not identified any health risks associated with the tests conducted on vessels between 1962-1973. The Navy sprayed a variety of agents on its ships to assess their ability to withstand chemical, nuclear and biological threats.

24 January 2016

Did USAF Decide to Save Money But Sacrifice Aircrews? Seems like it!

When C-23K Tail #362 ("Patches") was decontaminated at the USAF Museum, the cost for the commercial HAZMAT contractor was $60,000. A substantial sum!

Air Force paid that $60,000 because of everyone's overwhelming desire to keep the historical Patches in the Museum. The Air Force did not decontaminate any other C-123s. Faced with a potential $3.4 billion EPA illegal HAZMAT storage fine, in 2009 the Air Force opted to decontaminate by shredding and smelting all remaining aircraft at Davis-Monthan's Boneyard, turning them into aluminum blocks for the auto industry.

• Question
Since the Air Force knew the Agent Orange spray history of the ten or twelve former UC-123K spray birds as well as the results of the Conway report in 1979 (same year the Air Force Health Study began on Operation Ranch Hand veterans) why weren't all the airplanes properly decontaminated to protect aircrews and maintainers?

• Answers: 
1. Innocence and ignorance: In the '70s, there was growing concern about Agent Orange but little solid knowledge available to decision makers. Tests for deadly TCDD weren't even available in 1979 for the Conway report. Net result of the '79 test: (1) aircrew safety was assured (wrongly) and (2) aircrews were actually told the Air Force Material Command to continue scraping residue from nooks and crannies in the airplane, and to use air freshener to mask the nauseating stench, and scrub the C-123s with Dawn detergent. These steps all proved completely useless, as proven by the 1994 toxicological inspection of Patches that found it still "heavily contaminated with dioxin on all test surfaces" and "a danger to public health."
2. The end-of-life for the C-123 fleet was fast coming, and the Air Force was extremely hesitant to invest $60,000 for the couple years of remaining use of the transports.
3. Records vaguely suggest 24 UC-123K former Agent Orange spray birds were still in use by three squadrons. At $60,000 each, decontamination would cost the Air Force $1,400,000, plus it would take the airplanes out of service for an uncertain time.
4. The Big Reason*: if the Air Force moved to decontaminate the C-123s, it would be an announcement to the aircrews and maintainers that they'd already been exposed to deadly dioxin for several years. The illnesses and deaths of veterans between 1972 and whatever date a decontamination might occur would instantly have an association with Agent Orange exposure and veterans would apply to VA for disability benefits.

• Pound Wise-Penny Foolish!

Initially, the Air Force "saved" $1,400,000 by skipping the necessary decontamination of its C-123s. However, the June 2015 Interim Final Rule for C-123 veterans is estimated by the White House Office of Manpower and Budget to cost over $47,000,000 plus medical care. So the decision was a big money loser.

Worse, many of the two thousand men and women who volunteered to fly these aircraft now suffer the illnesses associated with long-term Agent Orange exposure. Although VA now might provide medical care and compensation, that is not worth cancers, heart disease, ALS, diabetes, soft tissue sarcoma and the other recognized Agent Orange illnesses.

* The Big Reason: a little background to prove the point:

In 2009 the Air Force was in turmoil about what to do with the toxic C-123s, known throughout the service as "the Agent Orange airplanes." The DOD consultant emphasized the potential for exposed veterans learning about their exposures and turning to the VA for earned benefits. Apparently this was something the Air Force felt best avoided, principally by destroying the surplus C-123s with as little visibility as possible.

Seeking Air Staff approval for the destruction, Air Force officials repeated the consultant's cautions, and as a result veterans did not learn for several years about the exposures they experienced in the 1972-1986 timeframe:
(from 505ACSS Position Paper, Mr. Buddy Boor, 5 Aug 2009)
The consultant is the same person named by Newsday (May 1 1985) who recommended all further testing on Agent Orange be discontinued:

 "White House scientist Alvin L. Young, a toxicologist, recommends that no further research on dioxin should be funded, "because research has failed to show it causes cancer or birth defects in humans."
Thankfully, his attempt to stop research on Agent Orange and its toxic component dioxin was not accepted, and over time a much fuller appreciation of the harm caused by Agent Orange developed.

22 January 2016

Aircrews abandoned, "hung out to dry" for decades of USAF mistakes & deceptions

A couple days ago I blogged about General Haugen's statement that C-123s are "as safe as humanly possible."

Events proved that the airplanes certainly weren't safe. A month before General Haugen's words, the USAF Armstrong Labs had identified military herbicide residue on Patches. Crews had complained about the stench being a safety concern, making crew and passengers alike nauseated.

C-123 Vets
Thus far, the Air Force has taken no steps to protect the veterans who flew the C-123s and were exposed to harmful amounts of Agent Orange. Even when asked to generate Line of Duty determinations for sick veterans, AF refused. C-123 veterans have been "hung out to dry" by AF leaders refusing to make right its decades of errors.

Key points: 
• Veterans followed chain of command, reported issues, obeyed orders, volunteered to fly and maintain the former Agent Orange spray planes
• Air Force generals, scientists and other leadership denied contamination, denied exposures, suppressed information, destroyed airplanes with a concern to prevent veterans' claims, abused FOIA requests, produced flawed C-123 reports cited by VA to block veterans' claims

The Air Force failed to protect its airmen while we were flying the C-123 (1972-1986.) Today, even with VA, CDC and Institute of Medicine confirmation of our exposure injuries, USAF does nothing to protect us or make right its decades of errors.

All the mistakes and deceptions with C-123 contamination were by the Air Force, not the aircrews. We were officially assured our airplanes were safe but they were toxic. USAF indifference has left us to shoulder the burden of USAF mistakes and deceptions. They even refuse Line of Duty determinations covering our exposures.

A. Lets look at what the veterans did:
1. reported a safety concern resulting in the 1979 Conway Report on Patches; the report identified toxins but dismissed exposure concerns
2. worked for years trying to clean residue from the former UC-123K birds
3. accepted the General's assurances, continued to volunteer to continue flying Patches and the others
4. over the years, developed Agent Orange illnesses
5. filed a USAF IG complaint when inquiries were unsuccessful; when the IG complaint was denied filed a similar DOD IG complaint which was ignored
6. gathered scientific information, presented to scientists at USAF School of Aerospace Medicine
7. gathered scientific information from CDC, NIH, US Public Health Service, universities
8. presented veterans' perspective and C-123 knowledge at Institute of Medicine hearings
9. granted VA service connection for Agent Orange illnesses but denied retroactive compensation
10. EVERY assertion by the C-123 veterans has been backed by solid evidence

B. Lets look at what the AF did:
USAF C-123 Policy

1. arranged 1979 Conway Report, opted not to decontaminate AFRES former UC-123K spray aircraft
2. in 1979 continued assuring aircrews and maintenance workers the airplanes were safe
3. completed 1994 USAF Armstrong Labs inspection on Patches, reported it "heavily contaminated with dioxin on all test surfaces" and "a danger to public health"
4. Concerned with foreign sales of contaminated C-123s, USAF Office of Environmental Law directed "all information be kept in official channels only"
5. in 1996 decontaminated Patches at $60,000 cost
6. in 2000, concerned with toxin liability, ordered all C-123 sales halted
7. in 2000, reacting to Davis-Monthan AFB worker complaints, ordered all surplus C-123s sealed, quarantined in special HAZMAT storage area; ordered workers to wear full HAZMAT protection
8. in 2009-2010, destroyed all C-123s as toxic waste; special measures to keep process "under the radar" and of low public interest specifically because consultants and staff noted if Reservists learned of exposures they might file VA claims
9. USAF School of Aerospace Medicine began study of C-123 Agent Orange issue after veterans complained through Senate and newspapers; 2012 report dismissed aircraft contamination and veterans' exposures
10. USAF Surgeon General declined notifying C-123 veterans of potential exposures, stating it would "cause undue distress"
11. USAF declined adding UC-123s to VA or DOD lists of Agent Orange testing, storage, transport sites
12. USAF declined FOIA requests, forcing veterans' lawsuit in US District Court Washington DC in which AF was ordered to comply and pay veterans' legal fees
13.USAF did not respond or comment when Institute of Medicine faulted the 2012 report as scientifically and mathematically in error
14. When Congressional leaders requested USAF Line of Duty determinations for aircrews' exposures, only response from the USAF Congressional Liaison Office was to find loopholes in AFI 36-2910 to block the requested protection. AF pointed to the 180-day limit on Reserve Component complaints of injury, insisting LODs couldn't be done after that. AF failed to note that aircrews did indeed officially complain of the toxins in 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979, but the AF had dismissed the complaints even though scientists identified military herbicide residue (Conway, 1979.)

USAF actions against C-123 Vets
P.S.: Air Force, you can't have it both ways. The Air Force cannot waste these last several decades
fighting us, insisting to us and to the VA that we were never exposed and our airplanes never contaminated, only now that the facts are set straight to insist it must stand silent on the issue of veterans' benefits and can do nothing to set right the situation.

Air Force took on itself an active mission of arguing against C-123 veterans' on our exposure assertions. Now that the CDC and the Institute of Medicine have set straight the scientific and medical facts, it is anti-veteran and disingenuous for the AF to state that only VA can deal with the veterans.
 There are many steps the Air Force can take to help its veteran airmen:
1. Acknowledge that the USAFSAM C-123 report has been challenged by the CDC and IOM. We don't expect AF to disown their report but it cannot be left to stand as the Air Force's last word on C-123 contamination.
2. Publish something like VA's C-123 Fact Sheet, addressing contamination and aircrew exposures. AF history must have some documentation on this controversy.
3. Include the recent events in the USAF Museum C-123 display
4. Recommend that the Armed Forces Pest Management Branch include former Operation Ranch Hand UC-123K tail numbers in the DOD list of Agent Orange testing, storage and preparation sites.
5. Use Afterburner to inform C-123 veterans of the VA Agent Orange benefits
6. On request from affected veterans, conduct Line of Duty determinations to consider whether or not C-123 veterans were exposed. An LOD helps reinforce a veteran's claim when processed by the VA because the VA must concede military documentation as decisive.

VA has insisted the C-123 crews were not qualified per statute as "veterans" during our C-123 exposures and uses their Interim Final Rule to provide that veteran status. Actually, such exposure constitutes an injury under 38 U.S.C. 101(24)(B) and (C).  If an individual develops a disease listed in 38 CFR 3.309(e) as specified in paragraph (a)(6)(ii) it will be presumed that the individual concerned became disabled during that service for purposes of establishing that the individual served in the active military, naval, or air service.

This Weekend's Powerful East Coast Storm

20 January 2016

Wing Commander Assured Aircrews Patches Was Safe (1979)

Statement of Brigadier General Don Haugen, Commander, 439th Airlift Wing:
"As far as aircraft safety is concerned, although there is never a warranty, the C-123 is as safe as humanly possible."(BG Don Haugen, October 1979)
     General Haugen's reassurance came in 1979 one month after inspectors from Air Force Armstrong Labs reported residue on C-123K # 362 (Patches) of military herbicides, including Agent Orange and Agent Blue, left from their Vietnam War spray operations. 

     The general was told the airplanes were safe. The general told us the airplanes were safe. But the airplanes were not safe, and now the aircrews are blocked from exposure benefits we'd have received if USAF mistakes had been uncovered earlier. When the 1979 tests were done, no science existed to detect the deadly TCDD contaminant which was the real problem.
     The 1979 test was ordered when aircrews and maintenance staff submitted safety complaints addressing Patch's stench. The scientists concluded that Patches should be scrubbed out with Dawn detergent and air fresheners used to mask the stench. Of course, Dawn detergent did nothing to help and neither did the many years crews spent trying to scrape out the residue.
     Fifteen years later, USAF Armstrong Labs again inspected Patches, determining her to be "heavily contaminated with dioxin on all test surfaces, and "a danger to public health." Patches received a $60,000 HAZMAT decontamination and its toxicity was reduced to about 10% of the original contamination, judged safe for "occasional entry."
     Conclusion: without the decontamination, Patches certainly wasn't "as safe as humanly possible" but instead remained a source of our Agent Orange exposures. The 1994 $60,000 decontamination should have been done BEFORE we started flying Patches, not fifteen years AFTER she was retired. (In 2012-2014 the VA spent $600,000 for its consultant to oppose C-123 claims at the IOM, more than enough to have decontaminated each of the aircraft at the very first!)     
     It wasn't until January 2015 that the Institute of Medicine determined that C-123 veterans had been exposed to harmful amounts of Agent Orange while flying Patches, and that veterans' benefits were appropriate. IOM concluded that the 2012 Air Force study of C-123 Agent Orange exposure were scientifically and mathematically flawed: the Air Force (incorrectly) reported the C-123s weren't hazardous and that veterans benefits would be inappropriate.
     General Haugen was a wonderful man. I had the privilege of working for him for years, but even this general officer was misled by faulty science and an institution dedicated to denial of such problems.

19 January 2016

16 January 2016

VA Secretary McDonald "Indifferent?" NO! He is passionate about serving veterans.

I CANNOT agree with WSJ's January 13 report on VA "indifference." My experience since 1992 has been quite the opposite, other than a few instances where staffers were in an inappropriate position of authority. Instead VA has been amazingly attentive to my concerns, and concerns of the veterans of our C-123 Veterans Association.

For instance, this MLK holiday weekend a dedicated claims worker in the VA St Paul Regional Office has been reviewing veterans' claims and resolving many which have taken too long.

That worker has been available for detailed inquiries, and has resolved claims in as little as 16 days for a terminal veteran.

Mr. McDonald's leadership cannot inspire everyone at VA nor can he do the work of all 300,000 employees. His leadership, however, is as telling as it can be. I cannot imagine any cabinet officer working as hard at such a thankless job.

As for medical care, I've had some disappointments but in the decades since my injury, probably fewer complaints with VA than I'd have had with my civilian practitioners, and certainly a more comprehensive package of care offered me...dental, prosthetics, rehab, pharmacy, ophthalmology, general medicine and other benefits essential to a disabled veteran.

Veterans are lucky to be able to say to Secretary McDonald, "Thank you for YOUR service!"

13 January 2016

My C-123 retroactive compensation idea – shot down in flames!

Hey, I can't crash yet. Need another half hour
for an AFTP!
Well, that didn't go too well. I'd proposed a method whereby VA and the Air Force leadership would use backdated exposure injury Line of Duty determinations to satisfy statutory requirements for Title 38 "veteran" status.

"Sorry, but no
" was today's response at noon from the VA.

VA leadership had their hearts in the right place, but had to turn us down. Still, we've got the principal goals for the last five years' work well-met: our people get VA benefits and disability compensation dated from June 19 2015 forward.

Half a loaf. But the best half! Sorry guys, but that's all we can push for at this time.

11 January 2016

How VBA Staffers Mistreated C-123 Vets for Four Years

C-123 veterans were, quite simply, abused from the first Agent Orange claims submitted right up to the present day, and we continue to be screwed until something is done regarding retroactive disability compensation. Know this: Most of the abuse was by certain staff in both VHA and VBA working hard, and quite successfully, preventing our exposure claims from being honored.

From Secretary Shinseki right on down the line of VA leaders, the promise to us and our Congressional representatives was repeatedly, "no blanket denial, and a case-by-case evaluation of claims." Specifically, the Secretary wrote (in his letter to Senator Burr, originally drafted by VBA's Agent Orange desk:)
"VA evaluates such claims on a case-by-case basis to determine if the available evidence supports service connection on a facts-found basis." "Accordingly, VA does not have a 'blanket policy' for denying such claims."
Secretary Shinseki even provided his official departmental C-123 fact sheet to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee repeating that promise of fair treatment. This was in response to Senator Burr's letter asking...
"All of this suggests that VA may essentially have a blanket policy of denying any claims based on alleged exposure to dioxin while serving aboard the C-123 planes, regardless of the weight of information submitted in a particular case. 
With that in mind, I ask you to ensure that any disability claims from the veterans who operated these C-123s will not be pre-judged as lacking merit but, rather, will be considered based on the facts of each particular case."
The Secretary offered Senator Burr important general assurances of proper treatment of C-123 claims. Yet from the VBA decisions on our claims, we saw 100% denials by VA.

We saw the real VA policy repeatedly used to doom every single C-123 veteran's claim as repeated in most denied claims:
"Every attempt was made to verify your exposure to herbicides. Although you submitted numerous amounts of evidence to support your claim, VA regulations do not allow us to concede exposure to herbicides for Veterans who claim they were exposed to herbicides used after the Vietnam war while flying in aircraft used to spray those chemicals." 
The deception must be clear to all: Secretary Shinseki promised even-handed case-by-case C-123 claims, and denied any VA blanket policy against those claims. But VA then proceeded to refuse 100% of the claims, stating VA has regulations forbidding such claims.

It stayed this way for four and a half years. VA promising in every breath that C-123 claims were processed fairly and by the law, yet always refusing every one of them and not bothering to mention their universal denial to the legislators.

Further, remember VA's statement about "regulations do not allow..." Turns out there never was any such regulation. Never existed, and VA acknowledged recently it was often repeated but in error.

LtCol Paul Bailey, combat veteran of the 82nd
Airborne at age 18. He had 34 years of enlisted
and commissioned Army & Air Force service
There's more abuse. In Paul Bailey's 2013 Agent Orange denial, he submitted 49 pieces of substantiating evidence. VA is required to respond to each piece of evidence, but here they simply wrote that his lay statement wasn't adequate to prove his case.

Ignored completely were all other items of evidence. This included statements from aircraft commanders, squadron commanders, fellow veterans, university schools of public health, VA physicians, professors of medicine, toxicologists, toxicology tests on Bailey's aircraft, Air Force records, medical treatment records, CDC Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry findings, National Institute of Health findings and more. All ignored without comment.

There is no correlation to VA's statement on the denial that "every attempt was made to verify your exposure." Rather, the facts make a lie of that statement because not only was no effort made to verify exposure but instead, a blind eye was turned to more than enough evidence to have granted service connection. Actually, VA did exactly that six months later when, under political and public pressure, VA Manchester NH reconsidered the case and granted the claim even though the raters in Manchester worked against headquarters' resistance.

The veteran had already entered hospice then with his final battle with cancer. A few weeks later, Paul Bailey was dead, ending our fifty years of friendship and service together.

There's even more to the abuse heaped on C-123 vets. Along with Major Marlene Wentworth, I met with VBA's Mr Tom Murphy, Director of Compensation and Pension. There, in front of his staff, Mr. Murphy explained how no amount of proof from whatever source would permit a C-123 claim to reach VA's "as likely to as not" threshold for approval.

He referred me to Dr. Terry Walters in VHA's Post Deployment Public Health Section, and in my subsequent phone call with her, she who explained that we were simply never exposed. She went further, detailing how exposure equals contamination field (such as Agent Orange) plus bioavailability...the ability of a toxin to enter the body and cause harm. Dr. Walters felt our "exposures" during ten years aboard former Agent Orange spray aircraft didn't satisfy her definition and therefore, we weren't exposed and our claims baseless. (Interesting how none of this reached Secretary Shinseki for his letter and fact sheet to Senator Burr!)

This redefinition by VHA of a fundamental term in toxicology was deemed "unscientific" by the director of the National Toxicology Program. The redefinition even differed from the CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry standard list of terms, and contrasted with Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary, VA's usual text for scientific and medical definitions.

Still, however unusual or unscientific, Dr. Walter's redefinition served VHA's purpose – keeping C-123 claims denied until June 19 2015. Only in December 2015 did we learn from VA's answers to Senator Gardner's questions that their redefinition of exposure in VHA was the personal creation of Dr. Terra Irons, only a year or so out of Chapel Hill. No peer review, no acceptance by VA outside VHA Public Health, no nothing...just Dr. Irons. A key concept in science redefined just to keep C-123 veterans from VA treatment of C-123 Agent Orange illnesses.

Why? Because the law, and several restatements of VA's duties to exposed veterans detailed how VA would provide the full range of medical care and compensation to all vets who'd been exposed to Agent Orange. So to VHA, wanting badly to prevent C-123 claims, it became important to prevent acknowledgement of any exposure by us to Agent Orange.

So they simply changed the ground rules, redefined exposure, and as if by magic, we weren't exposed. At least, not until the January 9 2015 release by the Institute of Medicine of their C-123 Agent Orange exposure report. And that's when science finally overcame VHA individuals' attitudes and staff policies – because C-123 veterans indeed had been exposed. It was effective, but as illogical as redefining green as blue.

We were poorly treated by VA for many years. They let our crewmates sicken and die without VA medical care and other benefits due each of us. Even today, players in VA still work hard to prevent retroactive compensation due us as it is due all other veterans once disability claims are finally resolved.

It seems to take the intervention of the Secretary to make things right for us, and for so many other groups of veterans like our Camp Lejeune brothers and sisters.