As the Veterans Services Representative for San Benito County, Shari Stevenson, 52, has a caseload of about 1,200 veterans she actively monitors. About 40% of them, including this reporter, have filed Agent Orange-related claims with the Veterans Administration (VA).
Stevenson has had her hands full trying to help those vets who may have been exposed to Agent Orange. She said she has been frustrated because the VA’s first inclination is to deny a claim as the vets continue to suffer from diabetes, nerve damage, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and a number of cancers that could be caused by Agent Orange.
Brian Lindberg was a young Marine Corps private when he served in Thailand in 1962.
“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, President Kennedy sent us in there and they went home quick.”
Stevenson said she tried to help Lindberg for three years starting in 2014. Lindberg said the VA determined he qualified for 80% disability benefits, but hired a lawyer in 2018 in an attempt to receive free medical care at a VA facility.
This reporter deployed to Vietnam three times between 1965 and 1968, and only learned while interviewing Stevenson in 2018 that he was possibly exposed to Agent Orange. She assisted him by obtaining his military records, including medical files, and walked him through the application process to file a claim. The VA denied the claim, as it most often does. Stevenson said recently that she refiled the claim, but it may take two to three years for a determination.
Stevenson said veterans from outside San Benito County trying to file claims for Agent Orange-related illnesses have heard about her dedication to help, and travel to Hollister to see her. She said the hardest part of her job is witnessing the veterans’ emotional struggles.
“Sometimes you know intimate, combat-related details that the younger vets are dealing with,” Stevenson said. “There’s a lot of PTSD. I’ve had young suicides, where I’m just getting a relationship started, they leave with a ray of hope, and they end up killing themselves.”
She said the VA gives Vietnam War veterans the run-around, often denying initial claims, which forces claimants to begin an appeal process that can take years to resolve.
“I don’t write the laws, I just write the best claim that I can for that vet,” Stevenson said. “Many don’t get the benefits because they don’t ask for them. They were taught by combat how to tough it out. The VA needs specialists when they examine combat vets, especially for mental health issues.”
Stevenson was a teenager when she first witnessed post-traumatic stress disorder in her uncle, Dennis Demoralas, who she now suspects also died from the effects of Agent Orange.
Stevenson said Demoralas graduated from San Benito High School in 1969, joined the Marines and served in Vietnam for a year. He was wounded and when he came back, she said he wasn’t the same guy anymore. She knew him more as a brother than an uncle after he came to live with her family when he was 12. They were close before he left for Vietnam, but after he came back the kids would sometimes hide from him when his temper flared up.
“We would see a certain flash in his eyes. All of us kids would hide because we knew he was having an episode,” she said. “He was moody and if we irritated him he could get violent. He was really a good guy and never intended to hurt us, but he just wasn’t himself.”
Stevenson said Demoralas served as a San Benito County Sheriff’s deputy before moving to Hawaii to work as a police officer. He was diagnosed with lung cancer just before retirement. He died in 2002 at age 51.
Stevenson suspects the cancer was attributable to his possible exposure to Agent Orange. She said that back then, neither her uncle nor the rest of the family knew anything about the VA and what benefits or services he could have received. So he died without any assistance from the VA, leaving behind two children and outstanding medical bills.
A few years later, the family began hearing about Agent Orange.
When Stevenson’s two sons Charles and Christopher Ranson joined the military, Demoralas’ experience came back to her.
“We’re a military-proud family,” she said. “My dad served in the Marine Corps, two of my brothers, Jimmy and Michael Botelho, also served.” (Stevenson’s third brother is San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho.)
She said because her uncle did not receive any VA assistance, she wanted to make sure her sons knew what their benefits would be after they left the military.
“When I had to sign the papers for Chris, who was 17 and still in school, the war in Middle East was still going on,” she said, “and I knew he would end up deploying. I thought I’d learn what his benefits were before I signed that paper because the Agent Orange thing still stuck in my mind. I knew they would be exposed to stuff and it scared me.”
Through internet searches, Stevenson learned there were online training programs for the VA. She learned about benefits, compensation, burials and more. Fortuitously, the veterans representative job came up after she finished her studies. She took a written test on general knowledge of VA benefits and placed first on the list of applicants before interviewing for the job.
“The last interview turned out to be my boss, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Griffin, who served in the Army during Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts,” she said. “The last question was, ‘What makes you think you deserve this job over a veteran?’ I said, ‘If you have a veteran who’s qualified and has a passion for the job, hire them. But I represent the moms, the wives, the families of veterans.’”
Stevenson got the job and started working in August 2010 in Monterey County. Today, she works only in Hollister. One of the first things she did was start an online work-study program for veterans using the GI Bill.
She said Vietnam-era veterans no longer have the GI Bill for education, but since 2013, younger veterans have what is called the Forever GI Bill that never expires. However, she said any veteran of any age who is at least 20% disabled can receive vocational rehabilitation, including education benefits. If they’re 100% disabled, their children can receive educational benefits.
Stevenson said there are still many Vietnam-era veterans who aren’t aware that the illnesses they suffer from could be a result of exposure to Agent Orange and what treatments or benefits they’re entitled to. Most of her cases, though, are veterans of the Gulf War.
Stevenson said the denial of claims is often capricious, where one vet who is 100% disabled from combat is turned down, while another, who is also 100% disabled but never saw combat, is approved.
“It’s subjective and when the doctors have been in the system too long they tend to harden,” she said, “and they become benefactors of taxpayer money by belittling the symptoms.”
Stevenson said one of the best parts of the job is when she’s able to help a vet apply for unemployment benefits, educational opportunities, or help with mental health issues.
“That’s my job,” she said. “If my uncle had that help, even though he would still have passed, his kids would have benefitted.”
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Over 1,500 local veterans file claims with VA for possible Agent Orange illnesses