Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.
Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com.
Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian. His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback.
Readers of Tom Philpott's Military Update Column Sound Off
One day in 1967 I was told to hover near a fuel pit and meet a chemical sergeant for a special mission. I was a 20-year-old Warrant-1 helicopter aircraft commander who did what he was told. The chemical sergeant showed us a 100-foot piece of pipe drilled with hundreds of holes, which they installed across the floor of our helicopter and required both cargo doors to be wide open. They brought in 55-gallon drums of Agent Orange with a portable gas powered pump hooked up to the pipe. The sergeant then gave my crew a lecture on how safe this chemical was, and took a big gulp of the chemical to prove it. I'm sure he died an early death long ago.
He told me to fly along the highway and the chemical would kill all the brush the enemy could use to hide behind. Day after day we reported for this mission spraying all day, for weeks. When we got back at night our clothes were soaked with Agent Orange that sprayed in through the open doors. And we saw how powerful it was. In a wide swath where we had flown three days before, everything was dead. Not just bushes but trees.
You're right, Mr. Principi, Lincoln could never have imagined it.
I am 66. Maybe I would have had high blood pressure, diabetes, more than 50 skin cancers and the very rare Guillain-Barré Syndrome anyways. It might just be luck that my older brother, who didn't go to Vietnam, has none of these problems.
I think Lincoln would have been the first to help.
The veteran's side of the story regarding Agent Orange is quite different from that presented by former VA Secretary Anthony Principi.
The government facilitated the inclusion of undesired contaminants in defoliants used during the war. Expediency and cost were more important than other considerations. Medical information going back to World War I had shown that dioxin was extremely dangerous.
It's worth noting that a significant number sailors sent to Vietnam were likely exposed to dioxins before they even left the United States. Consider Treasure Island Navy Base, which is an EPA Super Fund site.
Long-term effects of exposure were not known or properly studied. There was a great deal of "heads in sand," a worry that such research likely would result in increased liability. The overall tale, which runs over several decades, is almost unbelievable in places, and shows an ongoing desire by government officials to evade liability and responsibility. Government lawyers seem to have worked overtime in this regard.
When a disease or injury occurs with a younger person and is chronic, generally it is expected aging will cause the effects to increase. Avoiding the cost and responsibility is the driver, not the impact over time on the veteran.
As to the VA in general, it has made saving the government money a far greater responsibility than providing veterans with benefits and medical care authorized and required by law. The VA in almost uncountable cases has attempted to delay, deny and minimize benefits to an extent that numerous cases show VA has intentionally done so, and continues to do so.
Awards are often less than the law provides, due to unfavorable regulations and practices that attempt to reduce the scope of law, and the government's liability. When an award is made, after perhaps years of delay, it is paid in depreciated dollars, with no interest.
Former Secretary Principi is very conservative in his views, just as he was while he administered the VA. I do not believe any American citizen will complain about the amount of money we pay our veterans for service-related disabilities. We, as citizens, recognize our obligations to the men and women who serve in war and peace. The fact that they were not in the field of combat is irrelevant. They would have been if called upon. The illnesses and injuries they sustained as a result of active duty is our responsibility.
Principi is correct that a service-connected claim is never finished. Anytime a veteran's service-connected condition worsens, he or she can go back for an increase in benefits. But let's talk about solutions to the backlog.
One, there is no need for the Board of Veterans Appeals. It is a huge bureaucracy with 65 judges, each with four attorneys under their jurisdiction and each attorney with his or her own staff. There are, I understand, almost a half million claims awaiting BVA decisions.
Creation of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in 1988 took the guts out of the BVA. Until then, it was a "rubber stamp" for 85 percent of the decisions flowing from VA regional offices.
Two, it would take congressional action to eliminate the BVA entirely. But at least regionalize the BVA or allow the local hearings officer make the final decision before taking it to the U. S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. That would eliminate a lot of the burden on VA.
During 30 years as an advocate for veterans, I interviewed many who had served from World War II through Vietnam. What a sad sight to find persons living with their pain and heartache, never filing a claim because it would have made them feel guilty. They made it home alive and many comrades didn't. They could still work; forget they couldn't sleep or that the steel pin in their leg created arthritis up and down, hip and back. I interviewed veterans with spouses at their sides, and the wives began to cry because they had never heard their husbands mentioned their most difficult episodes. Pride stood in the way of reaching out to VA or to anyone.
In the VA's defense, claims personnel are overworked, understaffed, and the burnout factor is so high it is difficult to keep experienced people. The pressure is excessive. The push to "catch up" is so high, major errors are made in the rating decision rush, resulting in appeals and adding to the backlog.
As for the presumptive conditions awarded to Vietnam vets who only stepped foot in Vietnam, the Benefit of Doubt rule (Title 38 CFR 3.102) says if there is a doubt, it must be resolved in favor of the veteran. My stepson flew on helicopters that sprayed Agent Orange over Vietnam. He has a heart condition but will not file a claim because, I think, he feels the same survivor guilt so many other veterans feel.
Principi is right about the VA needing reform, but the problem isn't its regulations. It needs more staff and proper training. Perhaps it should even contract the backlog out to rating specialists who have retired. Double what would have been paid at VA and get out of their way.
I serve on the local Air Force Retiree Council and have the opportunity to hear from many members in the process of filing a claim with VA, or currently receiving VA benefits for service related injuries.
Most of these claimants are Vietnam veterans now suffering from age-related ailments, which the VA considers service-related.
In one noteworthy case, I spoke with an in individual who had a serious weight issue that jeopardized his career. He decided to begin a fitness program that included extensive running. In the course of his program he injured his knees and is now receiving 100 percent disability payments from the VA!
There are many more examples of the VA choosing to approve questionable claims rather than offend a veteran, friendly Congress and public. The unfortunate upshot of broad coverage rules is that it comes on the heels of severe budgets constraints throughout government, particularly support programs, and in some cases substantial cuts in Air Force flying hours.
I recognize that VA and DOD funds are separate pots but, in the end, it's all taxpayer money. We need to take care of our veterans who have suffered legitimate injuries, especially in the recent conflicts. They should not be put behind Vietnam vets with age-related diabetes.
APNEA AND CPAP MACHINES
I read your article on doubts raised about VA compensation for sleep apnea and I feel compelled to reply.
I am a sales representative for a major manufacturer of CPAP devices. I have long been bothered that the VA gives a 50 percent disability to anyone who tests positive for sleep apnea and requires a CPAP machine.
While sleep apnea is a difficult condition to live with when untreated, it can certainly be nearly completely mitigated with the use of CPAP or BiPAP machines and a properly fitted mask.
It is proper to have VA pay for the testing of the patient and for the proper therapy. But it is very inappropriate to give any vet a disability for it, at all. I hope to see this change as soon as possible. Thanks for your reporting. It could make a difference.
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