More than 1,500 veterans who suspect they were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War have registered for health exams with the Veterans Administration (VA) representative in Hollister. They hope to receive from the federal government medical care, possibly disability payments and in some cases, death benefits for their spouses or children.
Shari Stevenson, VA Administrator for Monterey and San Benito Counties, said there are undoubtedly thousands more in Monterey County who have registered and there are tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands more throughout the country who have no idea they may have been exposed to Agent Orange.
Many aging vets suffering from diabetes, nerve damage, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, prostate and skin cancer, for instance, often mistakenly attribute their ailments to bad luck or just growing old. What they don’t realize, though, is that Agent Orange may either have caused their illnesses or exacerbated them. Stevenson said veterans are dying from these diseases in far greater numbers than non-veterans because the diseases progress much faster due to their exposure to Agent Orange.
In full disclosure, this reporter learned while interviewing Stevenson that the ship I was on from 1965 to 68, USS Estes, is included on the official VA list of ships that were in areas along Vietnam or its waterways that were likely exposed to Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was a defoliant used along the perimeters of a number of military installations, including in Hawaii, Okinawa, and Korea, among others. According to Wikipedia, it was then used as a tactical weapon between 1962 and 1975 in Vietnam, as part “the Rainbow Herbicides” that were sprayed from C-123 Provider aircraft and helicopters during Operation Ranch Hand. Stevenson said it was not just used to kill weeds around huge airbases and far-flung special-forces’ outposts, but to deforest entire regions of Vietnam, Thailand and portions of Cambodia.
The purpose was to remove hundreds of thousands of square miles of jungle canopies that North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas hid beneath as they made their way from the north down into the south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and elsewhere. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel, more than three million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange, according to the Red Cross of Vietnam.
It wasn’t long after the war ended in 1972 that many of those who served in Vietnam began to experience higher than normal rates of illnesses. Veterans suspected early on that there may be a connection to Agent Orange. They began to file claims in 1977 to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for health care treating conditions they believed were associated with exposure to Agent Orange. More often than not, their claims were denied unless they could prove the condition began when they were in the service or within one year of their discharge.
Of the 39,419 claims filed by April 1993, the VA compensated just 486 victims. Veterans’ organizations filed class-action lawsuits against the manufacturers, including Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Diamond Shamrock. They, however, blamed everything on the U.S. Government. The companies settled the suits in 1991, and Congress enacted the Agent Orange Act, giving the VA the authority to declare certain conditions “presumptive” to exposure to Agent Orange, making those vets who served in Vietnam eligible to receive treatment and compensation of those conditions.
Stevenson said the VA conducted what ultimately became a 40-year study before admitting Agent Orange was a contributor to many diseases. She indicated the VA is essentially the judge and jury when it comes to veterans qualifying for disability payments.
VA declared Agent Orange was connected to certain “presumptive diseases.” But the veterans suffering from those diseases must prove their cases to the VA by connecting the dots between where they served, the job they were involved in, and their illnesses by providing both their military DD-214 files and medical records. And if a veteran’s particular disease is not on the presumptive list, they will be denied treatment or disability payments until it is.
Stevenson said VA will almost always deny a claim, making it necessary for the veteran or their representative to file an appeal. Early on, that could take years. Some veterans died before there was a determination. Stevenson said the average time now from filing date to determination of payoff or disability payments is about a year.
As recently as last November, though, VA showed its lack of will to move forward in adding ailments to the presumptive list that may have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange. According to Stars and Stripes newspaper VA Secretary David J. Shulkin said he plans to “further explore” adding ailments. On the Nov. 1, 2017 deadline date that VA itself had set for this packet of decisions, Shulkin issued a brief statement promising only more delay, according to the Stars and Stripes story.
“After thoroughly reviewing the National Academy of Medicine [NAM]’s latest report regarding veterans and Agent Orange, and associated data and recommendations from [VA’s] NAM Task Force, I have made a decision to further explore new presumptive conditions for service connection that may ultimately qualify for disability compensation,” Shulkin said.
“What they found in the study is that mortality rate for what is thought of as ‘old-people’s diseases’ was much higher in veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange,” Stevenson said. “Some diseases, like lung cancer, brain cancer, skin cancer were already on the presumptive list. So, they [VA] accepted responsibility and started granting claims, then the veterans groups got together and sued for all the denials, so they could backdate their benefits.”
Stevenson said the class-action suit, Nehmer v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, requires the VA to identify all claims based on any newly recognized diseases that were previously denied and pay disability and death benefits retroactive to the initial claim date.
According to the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLS), the VA has done so for diabetes, ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and more than a dozen types of cancer. Over the last 20 years, the VA has paid out more than $4.5 billion in retroactive disability and death benefits to hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans and their surviving family members.
Left out of this settlement, though, were those who served in locations from Hawaii to Korea, Cambodia and Thailand.
On Jan. 18, Congressmen Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) joined a bipartisan group of House members in introducing a bill to modify the presumption of service connection for veterans exposed to herbicides while serving in Thailand. The bill would give veterans who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War era the opportunity to prove exposure to herbicide agents like Agent Orange and receive VA benefits for service-related health problems. Currently, many veterans, including those in San Benito County who served in Thailand, are not entitled to such benefits on the basis of Agent Orange exposure.
Stevenson put BenitoLink in contact with two local veterans who served in Thailand; Brian Lindberg and Frank “Francis” Plesek, as well as Irene Soileau, the widow of Raymond Soileau. All three have had to slog through the tangle of VA bureaucratic roadblocks in trying to secure care and compensation.
Stevenson said compensation is heavily based on mobility. A veteran who is judged to be 100 percent disabled by a disease, but is still somewhat mobile, will receive approximately $3,000 a month, tax free, for life, plus a lump-sum settlement dating back to the date the claim was first filed. Another veteran who is 100 percent disabled and not mobile, such as a double amputee, can receive around $6,000 a month for life.
“That’s been my battle for my people,” she said. “They were on these bases in Thailand, but because they didn’t have a specific job, such as being an MP [military police], dog patrol handler, parameter patrol, or security police squadron it’s very difficult. My argument on these cases is, yes, they went outside and, yes, they were close to the perimeters. Everyone, at some point, goes on patrols. And everything on the base was sprayed, not just the perimeters.”
Veterans whose service involved duty on or near military bases in Thailand between Feb. 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975, may have been exposed to herbicides and may qualify for VA benefits.
Brian Lindberg was a young Marine Corps private when President John F. Kennedy sent the Third Marine Division into Thailand in 1962, where he patrolled near the Don Muang Air Field for one year and nine days. He served in the reserves as a cargo handler flying in C-119s Boxcar aircraft from 1957 to 1960, and then active duty as a rifleman until 1963.
“We were there because Laos was coming down from the north and invading the Thailand farmers’ rice paddies and stealing all their goods,” he said. “As a show of force, Kennedy sent us in there and they went home quick.”
Lindberg said the VA determined he qualifies for 80 percent disability benefits, but through his lawyer he is attempting to secure 100 percent so he can receive free medical care at a VA facility.
“We fought Brian Lindberg’s case for three years,” Stevenson said. “He filed in 2014. He was denied in 2015. They just stated he wasn’t exposed. That’s pretty common. That’s the part Panetta is trying to change, that it isn’t an automatic denial.”
Stevenson said under the bill that Panetta announced, veterans who served in Thailand will be afforded the chance to prove they were exposed to Agent Orange during the entire Vietnam War era. She appealed Lindberg’s case in 2014, by writing a “notice of disagreement.”
Unfortunately, during the time he was waiting to hear back from the VA on his appeal, which was just one of 8,000 under consideration by the California Department of Veterans’ Affairs (CVA) in Oakland, he was approached by a lawyer, who he hired. Stevenson said it was entirely unnecessary to involve an attorney because she and the CVA were already moving the appeal through the process as speedily as possible.
“His appeal was approved Nov. 2017,” she said. “His lawyer didn’t have to do anything because we already built the case for him. I was really disappointed because Brian thinks they rushed the process, but they actually didn’t. He was right in line.”
Frank “Francis” Plesek, served as an Air Force dental hygienist from 1969 to 1973. He was stationed in Thailand at the U-Tapao B-52 base for 11 months and 24 days. Today, he suffers from Type-2 diabetes, hardening of the arteries, depression, and he’s slowly going blind. He filed with the VA Oct. 2014, and was denied Feb. 2015. According to Stevenson, the VA did so because it was determined that the herbicide use in Thailand was not prevalent enough to concede his exposure.
“The CVA in Oakland represented him and he was awarded Nov. 30, 2017,” she said about his final approval.
As is often the case, the VA made Plesek jump through a few hoops before awarding him. Under its guidelines, the VA somehow figured he must never have ventured outside during the entire time he was stationed in Thailand. Stevenson said the CVA helped his appeal by providing pictures showing the base was heavily sprayed.
“That seems to be the way the government is looking at it. ‘You weren’t in combat. You weren’t on the ground in Vietnam, so how could you have been affected by Agent Orange?’” Plesek said. “It’s really simple. They said they only sprayed around the base perimeters. But they sprayed everywhere on the base. We have pictures of them spraying the ground right outside of our barracks.”
He said while serving in Thailand barely out of his teens, he had not thought of what the herbicides were doing to him.
“We were invincible. We couldn’t get hurt,” he said, adding that when he was discharged and processed out of the service nothing was mentioned about possible exposure to Agent Orange.
“It wasn’t really known or talked about,” he said. “It’s taken this long for people to start showing the symptoms. First, they considered the guys who served in Vietnam because that’s where it was heavily used. As time went on, they started finding out that guys in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and on ships were inundated with Agent Orange.”
Raymond Soileau also served in Thailand in the Air Force at the Takhli Air Force Base. He was a jet mechanic, who, according to Stevenson, after reading his performance evaluations written by his superior officers, and his widow, Irene, was loved by everyone.
After the service, Soileau was a widower living in Louisiana. Irene lived in Texas. They met through an online dating service and married 11 years ago. She described him as the love of her life, a man who would not hesitate to give away his last dollar to help someone. She said he never spoke of his time in the military. After he retired from working for the state, they sold everything and hit the road in an RV, traveling through 34 states. They ended up in San Benito County, staying at the Thousand Trails RV Park south of Hollister. Then things started to go terribly wrong.
He began to suffer from seizures and was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a deadly brain tumor. The Hollister doctor who made the diagnosis had been associated with Stanford Cancer Center and was able to get him admitted there.
“Stanford wrote a letter supporting his claim that they strongly confirmed the brain cancer was due to exposure to Agent Orange,” Stevenson said. “That’s a big deal. That cancer center treats a lot of veterans because Palo Alto VA sends them there. Being he was terminal, his case was expedited.”
As has proven to be the norm rather than the exception, VA denied his claim in June 2016.
“The VA said jet engine mechanics weren’t exposed to tactical herbicides because they assumed he was indoors,” Stevenson said. “By then he wasn’t doing well. When I received this denial, I filed his appeal just to keep the claim going. I was thinking of Irene. She’s still having a hard time.”
Stevenson said the appeal will be a battle, but if approved, Irene will be awarded a one-time settlement and then about a third to half of what he would have received in monthly payments.
“We had to do the same for him as we did with Frances [Plesek],” she said, “provide pictures that showed the hangers were open and open airfields with no foliage around them. The planes are out in the open, near the perimeters. There were two accidents on the base and he had to tow the planes. There are a lot of ‘buddy statements’ [performance evaluations] in his records that support his claim. I feel confident the claim will be approved. Unfortunately, for her there are now doctor bills that she is responsible for. He got no help from the VA.”
Irene lives in an RV trailer at Casa de Fruta now. After a torturous last few days of being shuttled between San Benito, Monterey, and Santa Clara counties as he fought to stay alive, Raymond Soileau died at Stanford.
The final indignity came, she said, when Stanford, which had agreed to his wishes to use his body for cancer research, somehow lost track of it, and by the time they located the body, it was determined too much time had passed to be able to use it. Then one day, his cremated ashes showed up in a small white box in Irene’s mail.
Irene has no idea what lays ahead. Before tragedy fell on them, they had a comfortable life traveling around the country. Now she survives on Social Security because Stanford delayed sending Raymond’s death certificate, which she needed to send to Louisiana, so she has been unable to collect his retirement benefits. She is three months behind on her RV payments, two months delinquent in paying rent for the space, her phone has been disconnected twice for late payments, and sometimes she must choose whether to buy food for herself or her small dog, Angel.
Meanwhile, the VA has not decided on the appeal.
“Typically, the wait is less than six months now,” Stevenson said. “I provide the packet with the service records that links the medical conditions. That’s important. Some vet reps will just write the claims and send them in. I don’t do that because you have one shot and you have to hit it right because a denial is hard to fight. With Agent Orange, you have certain presumptive conditions that are automatic. You served in this zone, you have this ailment and it’s automatic. It’s just a matter of how much.”
Stevenson is normally in her office at the Veterans Memorial Building in Hollister Monday through Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. She advises veterans who want to make a claim to bring their DD-214s, along with current medical records with diagnosis, if possible.