Monday, January 18, 2010

New Findings About Agent Orange

I’ve told this story before, but now there is a new twist to it. Not sure how in depth I ever went, but if you’ve been reading here for any length of time, you know that I have had a series of heart attacks and a couple of bypass surgeries over the years. My first heart episode was way back in 1985, I was 36 years old. I wondered why I had a heart attack that young.

After all, I was overweight, but I didn’t have diabetes back then. I smoked some pot up to that point in my life, but didn’t smoke cigarettes. There is no heart disease in the family. My cholesterol was low. So, none of the big risk factors they told the public about. And even if I had risk factors, and a heavy dose of them, I was only 36 years old.

I was working at my business. I had a maintenance service back then and I was pushing a vacuum at the Pine City Municipal Liquor Store and Bar, one of my accounts. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was in pain, chest pain. It wouldn’t go away. It was like a real bad case of heartburn. I got home and laid down in bed. My then twelve year old daughter looked at me and told me I should go to the hospital. My foster son drove me the 21 miles to Mora, MN and I made my way into the emergency room entrance clutching my shirt at my chest, just below my neck.

The doctor put a small white pill under my tongue and the pain released and subsided. They then did all the tests and found blockages in my young heart. After three balloon treatments, (this was before stents), that each collapsed, the doctors took me by ambulance to Minneapolis and had a triple bypass surgery performed in January of 1986.

I studied the facts. I learned all I could. I had no idea why this would happen to me at such a young age. People I knew who either died from a heart attack or got surgery were older, most in their sixties. Mrs. Spadoman was sure of her idea. She has always said it was from Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant that was sprayed on plants to kill vegetation in the jungles of Vietnam. I served in Vietnam from February of 1969 for one complete year to February 1970. I was on two Agent Orange spraying operations that I remember. Right up close and personal, Agent Orange, dioxin chemicals were sprayed directly on me and I lived in the area where it was sprayed for weeks.

Agent Orange is a code name for a chemical defoliant developed for use by the military for use in the jungles of Vietnam. It came shipped in a 55 gallon drum. The drum was black at the top and bottom, with an orange stripe around the middle. Some say that’s where the name came from. Read more about it and its use here. And if you want to know a little more, or maybe a lot more, about poisonous dioxin chemicals and Agent Orange in general, here is a good web site from Canada. Many Canadian troops were exposed as well as Americans in Vietnam.

Years later, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA, released documents that told of the horrors caused by direct contact with Agent Orange. They listed all kinds of maladies. Many cancers were listed and some birth defects. The VA started screening those that served in Vietnam for symptoms of exposure to Agent Orange. They designated some certain diseases and cancers, and if you had one of these on this master list, you could get medical care. The screening was done without cost to the Veteran, even if the Veteran was not eligible for medical care at the VA hospitals and clinics.

That’s the way it works, you know. Just because you’re a Veteran doesn’t mean you can drop in at a VA clinic or hospital and get medical care. There is a series of documents to fill out and more documents to provide, namely, the DD-214 discharge paper, which we were told was an important document when they handed it to us at discharge. There is also a means test form. The means test is a statement about your net worth and income and whether or not you had access to other insurance. This health care crap isn’t new to the Veteran. After being told as a nineteen year old soldier that you’d have medical care for the rest of your life, you found out that you didn’t really, unless you were indigent. If the illness or injury was caused by something that happened to you while you served in the military, a service connected injury or illness, you would be cared for at no expense, but the individual had to prove to the VA that what ailment you had was caused by something that happened to you when you served.

Even now, the Department of Veterans affairs Medical Center asks me, at every visit, if I have other insurance. Even though I have fought the system and was found to have a service connected disability I must answer to them if I have other insurance, like being listed on my spouses medical and hospitalization plan. I am not. I can get on that plan, but at great expense as my conditions are pre existing.

Hard to not have pre existing conditions when you have open heart surgery at 36 years old. Hard to get life insurance too. I don’t have any. The VA will give my spouse, or surviving relative, $300.00 and an American flag when I pass. If they deem the passing as caused by my service connected disability, she’ll get more. Here is the facts and parameters of death benefits for Veterans. By the way, it doesn’t matter if you sat at a desk or fought in combat. We are all the same down at the enlisted man’s, (or woman’s) level.

I first applied for benefits in 1992. I applied in Minnesota when I lived in Duluth. I was denied. I applied again in Grand Junction, Colorado after I had another heart episode. Another small heart attack, an enzyme change and a week in a hospital bed with a nitroglycerin drip in my arm. I was turned down again.

The process of applying for benefits from the VA is an unbelievable nightmare. Forms to fill out, drawing on memory from incidents from the time you served in the military, and doctors visits, tests, and results, letters from friends and relatives, affidavits to attempt to prove that what happened to me was caused by them and happened while I was in the service.

This took me nine years. And if it wasn’t for a couple of really good guys that helped me through the process, I still would be out in the cold without benefits. But I don’t get disability benefits for what I have always thought to be the cause of my health problems, that is, exposure to Agent Orange. Even after Agent Orange screening, there was no residual effects from such exposure evident in me. I am disabled on other counts.

A few years ago, the VA did admit and start providing benefits for Veterans that served in Vietnam that had diabetes. I was diagnosed as being a diabetic about 12 years ago. The Va has recognized my service in Vietnam and has given me a portion of my disability for diabetes. My diabetes care is paid for by the VA. It is considered service connected as it is assumed the exposure to Agent Orange has cause diabetes in Veterans, this proven from case studies.

Now, it finally has happened. The VA has admitted that heart disease is caused by Agent Orange. Their findings will now allow military Veterans that served in Vietnam to apply for benefits if they have heart disease, specifically, coronary artery disease. I have it. I also have diabetes. I’m already disabled, so I don’t get more money or some lump sum payment, and I already get medical care at the VA at no monetary charge.

What does this mean then? This decree that Coronary artery disease was caused by exposure to Agent Orange? It means I don’t have to explain to people that I was given a disability because I am unstable and fucked up in the head from PTSD. I can finally say what Mrs. Spadoman and I have believed all along to be the case, that I was poisoned by dioxin chemicals when I served in Vietnam. They admit it, and in my lifetime. Oh happy day.

Before I post the article that I received that told of this news, I just want to say that PTSD is real and it haunts a person for life. Maybe I shouldn't be ashamed of it, and maybe being ashamed is part of what PTSD does to a person, but it is hard to have to live with the stigma of being mentally imbalanced, and especially hard to live with others not wanting, or not believing, one can be disabled because of PTSD. I have been constantly judged and berated, by some, because I receive a disability for a mental illness anxiety disorder. Now, because of this new order about coronary artery disease, I won’t have to explain anymore. People understand heart attacks. I’ve had six, and my chest invaded twice. Now, the VA admits that in all likelihood, being exposed to Agent Orange caused me to have a different style of life and are willing to let me be retired by paying me a disability. The new order will not pay me any more money, but it will call attention to what I knew as the truth for many years.

Peace to all.

Here’s the article:

Costly Agent Orange-Heart Disease Link Looms
Tom Philpott | December 31, 2009

The cost of war -- on veterans’ health and taxpayer wallets -- will loom a little larger in the new year when the Department of Veterans Affairs issues a final rule to claim adjudicators to presume three more diseases of Vietnam veterans, including heart disease, were caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
The rule, expected to be published soon, will make almost any veteran who set foot in Vietnam, and is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, B cell leukemia or ischemic heart disease (known also as coronary artery disease), eligible for disability compensation and VA medical care.  The exception would be if credible evidence surfaces of a non-service cause for the ailment.
Katie Roberts, VA press secretary, said no estimates will be available on numbers of veterans impacted or the potential cost to VA until after the rule change takes effect sometime in 2010.  But the National Association for Uniformed Services was told by a VA official that up to 185,000 veterans could become eligible for benefits and the projected cost to VA might reach $50 billion, said Win Reither, a retired colonel on NAUS’ executive board.
NAUS also advised members that VA, to avoid aggravating its claims backlog, intends to “accept letters from family physicians supporting claims for Agent Orange-related conditions.”  It said thousands of widows whose husbands died of Agent Orange disabilities also will be eligible for retroactive benefits and VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.
 “This is huge,” said Ronald Abrams, co-director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.  NVLSP has represented veterans in Agent Orange lawsuits for the last 25 years.  The non-profit law group publishes the “Veterans Benefits Manual,” a 1900-page guide for veterans’ advocates to navigate the maze for VA claims, appeals and key court decisions.
Abrams said he can’t guess at how many more thousands of veterans previously denied disability claims, or how many thousands more who haven’t filed claims yet, will be eligible for benefits.  But numbers, particularly of those with heart disease, will be very large, he suggested. 
All of the veterans “who have been trying to link their heart condition to a service-connected condition won’t have to do it now if they’re Vietnam vets,” Abrams said.  For VA, it will mean “a significant amount of money -- and many, many, many people helped.” 
The excitement over expansion of benefits for Vietnam veterans, and worry by some within the Obama administration over cost, flows from an announcement last October by VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.  He said three categories would be added to the list of diseases the VA presumes were caused by Agent Orange. Veterans with the presumptive Agent Orange ailments can get disability compensation if they can show they made even a brief visit to Vietnam from 1962 to 1975.  With a presumptive illness, claim applicants don’t have to prove, as other claimants do, a direct association between their medical condition and military service.
Shinseki said he based his decision on work of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies.   VA contracts with IOM to gather veterans’ health data and investigate links between diseases and toxic herbicide used in Vietnam to destroy vegetation and expose enemy positions.
In a speech last July, Shinseki, former Army chief of staff and a wounded veteran of Vietnam, expressed frustration that “40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, this secretary is still adjudicating claims for presumption of service-connected disabilities tied to its toxic effects.”   VA and the Defense Department should had conducted conclusive studies earlier on presumptive disabilities from Agent Orange, he suggested.
“The scientific method and the failure to advocate for the veteran got in the way of our processes,” Shinseki bluntly concluded.
In last October’s announcement he said VA “must do better reviews of illnesses that may be connected to service, and we will.  Veterans who endure health problems deserve timely decisions based on solid evidence.”
When a disease is added to VA’s list of ailments tied to Agent Orange, veterans with the disease can become eligible for retroactive disability payments, back to the date original claims were rejected, if after 1985.
Joe Violante, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, praised Shinseki’s decision.  But he said VA faces a “logistical nightmare” in trying to find veterans turned down on earlier on claims.  A VA official told Violante, he said, that cost of the search could be part of that nightmare.
Chairman of government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America until last October was John Miterko.  He said he wasn’t surprised that Shinseki added ailments to the Agent Orange presumptive list including heart disease.
“If you look at the Vietnam veteran population, the diseases we’ve contracted and the mortality rate, the only group dying faster rate are the World War II veterans,” Miterko said.  “We’re picking up diseases by our ‘60s that we shouldn’t be getting until our late ‘70s, early ‘80s.  So his adding other diseases, heart disease in particular, isn’t a surprise.”
Both Shinseki and his predecessor, James Peake, former Army surgeon general, had long military careers and served in Vietnam.   “That’s a hell of a bonus for us,” Miterko said.  Both of them have shown “much more empathy, much more understanding.  They would have seen many of their own peer group suffering from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange.”
Miterko doesn’t believe anyone can estimate how many veterans will benefit from the new presumptive diseases.  VA will continue to process claims individually, he said, and likely won’t be accepting Agent Orange as the cause of heart disease for someone “who has smoked for 40 years and is morbidly obese.  Common sense is going to have to prevail as well.”


I, Like The View said...

peace, indeed

Mel said...

No shame need happen...


Oh, how I dream of peace--sweet, loving warm, all encompassing peace.


dee said...

This is a great victory, indeed. I, for one, know better than most. My husband did not live to hear about this victory.
You are fortunate to have lived to hear this news. My husband died of myocardial infarction when he was 56. No warning signs, just hypertension but then again it wasn't service connected. He never really got treated for anything but hypertension. My husband had so many illnesses, even locally, he could not get a doctor to take him as a patient. I want to thank you for being active online & creating awareness. You are also speaking for all the Vietnam veterans that can no longer speak for themselves. Thank you.

If you are the child of a Vietnam veteran and believe that you are sick because of agent orange then join our 'Support Community':

Learn more about our 'Lobbying Campaign' by visiting our website:

Sharon Perry
Agent Orange Legacy
Children of Vietnam Veterans

moosh said...

I am so sorry. My brother served in Nam. He has multiple problems including diabetis and heart diease. He is retired milatary so it was easier to get dervices. I wish you the best. Came for Ruby tuesday HRT.

dee said...

It turns out that Ischemic Heart Disease is a agent orange presumptive disease afterall. I mentioned that the myocardial infarction wasn't service connected but it was because of Diabetes Type II.

Sharon L. Perry
Agent Orange Legacy
Children of Vietnam Veterans