Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Summary Report on the IOM Process

Our shipmates over at BlueWaterNavy.org have provided us with this summary preview of an upcoming report that will be posted on the website soon. So, without further ado:

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This Summary is provided in advance of a more detailed report challenging the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Institute of Medicine. The premise is: there is no coincidence that the legal arguments of the DVA in Haas vs. Nicholson (which are extremely weak) and the release of the Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 2006 (which excludes important data available to them) mutually support one another. But that is the total means of their support. They are otherwise resting on air. The DVA legal argument is semantic manipulation that is meaningless without the backing of the IOM. The IOM report can only be supportive of the DVA legal arguments if it totally ignores obvious and existing scientific and medical data. Without one, the other fails utterly. If approached as mutually groundless, they may both fall together.

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SUMMARY

On August 16, 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) faced a situation they had been carefully avoiding for at least the last 10 years. The Veteran's Court of Appeals ruled against them in Haas v. Nicholson regarding compensation owed to Vietnam veterans who served off the mainland of Vietnam between 1963 and 1974. These veterans comprise a new class of individuals collectively named "Blue Water Sailors" although it includes some Coast Guard, Marine and Air Force personnel. (See more details at Brief Summary at the BlueWaterNavy website.)

The DVA knows it can not afford to have medical evidence which supports this type of compensation claim and the required medical assistance for this class of veteran. But it is not because of VA compensation money. It knows that it can not leave itself or the U.S. Chemical Industry open to lawsuits concerning claims by a new class of litigants. The DVA's maneuverings to eliminate this class of potential litigants started in the early 1990s with actions that ultimately led to changes to the M21 Manual. (See
"
The Case Against Mary Lou Keener")

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is a private, non-governmental entity and an associated agency of the National Academy of Sciences mandated by Congress in 1991 to provide the DVA with biennial updates of any and all scientific and medical research regarding veterans and the use of herbicides and other toxic agents during the war in Vietnam. Their mission is officially stated as:

Because of continuing uncertainty about the long-term health effects of the sprayed herbicides on Vietnam veterans, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991. The legislation directed the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to request the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to perform a comprehensive evaluation of scientific and medical information regarding the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides used in Vietnam. Mandated updates to the original study were to be conducted every 2 years for 10 years. Veterans and Agent Orange, Update 2006 is the seventh report in this series.
--- Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 2006
Early in 2006, the IOM began staffing the committee to draft the Veterans and Agent Orange Update: 2006. This was an auspicious time, in that it coincided with the Haas v. Nicholson lawsuit. Through some unknown causes, these two events became intricately entwined in an unusual manner. (A list of Committee Members for 2006 is available at the BlueWaterNavy website.)

There is strong scientific and medical evidence showing positive relationships between war time service of naval personnel offshore of Vietnam and contamination by Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals used in Vietnam during this time period.

The most recognized reports showing this were completed by the Australians and include Examination Of The Potential Exposure Of Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Personnel To Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins And Polychlorinated Dibenzofurans Via Drinking Water, written by the Australian University of Queensland for the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs and released in 2002. There is also a report presented at an international Agent Orange conference in 2003 titled Co-Distillation Of Agent Orange And Other Persistent Organic Pollutants In Evaporative Water Distillation. These reports were also published in a Chemistry Journal "Organohalogen Compounds." More reports included in this mix are the first three reports on Australian Vietnam Veterans Mortality and Cancer Incidence which were released in 2005. These
documents can be reviewed at the BlueWaterNavy website.

In fact, the strength of these reports is so strong that both Australia and New Zealand have relied upon them to begin paying compensation to their sailors and other water borne personnel who were involved in the Vietnam conflict as American allies.

However, for this latest Update: 2006, the IOM has refused to consider these reports and the research data these reports present as valid because they have not been "peer reviewed". This has been their official and repeated response as to why this data was not presented to the VA as required by Congress in creating the Updates. This statement is nothing but a smoke screen and needs to be laid aside as such as soon as possible. Over the years, there have been several reports and data included in the Veterans and Agent Orange Updates that have not held "peer review" status, so using this as an excuse is extremely flawed. Further, The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Report was closely scrutinized by the following Australian agencies:
  • Regular Defense Force Welfare Association (RDFWA)
  • The Returned and Services League (R&SL)
  • The Naval Association of Australia (NAA)
  • The Repatriation Medical Authority (RMA)
  • The Specialist Medical Review Council
The argument regarding lack of peer review just doesn't hold water. I'm not certain who the IOM considers as their peers, but if these agencies and the credentials of the report authors don't fit that definition, then they are definitely over-rating themselves.

But surprisingly, the IOM Committee charged with completing the Update: 2006 attempted to include some data from these studies in the Update: 2006. A ranking member of the committee has reported that a "ruling from on high" forced them to remove this information from the report prior to its publication.

The contentions of the DVA, who act as if their silence represent that this data does not exist, are not valid because existing data proves the contamination of the blue water navy class of veterans. But with the help of the IOM, possibly through some agreement to "support the legal arguments of the DVA," the full body of existing data addressing offshore contamination has been suppressed. It certainly didn't appear in the Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 2006. But veterans need to know that data clearly supporting their claims of Agent Orange exposure does exist.

The lack of this information appearing in the Update: 2006 (or even Update: 2004) is like a gaping hole in the existing body of evidence, and its omission substantiates the VA legal stance that they have been presented with no medical evidence to support the claims of exposure and subsequent debilitation of Agent Orange diseases within the class of blue water sailors. In fact, the final Brief filed by VA lawyers on July 20, 2007 in Haas v. Nicholson rests heavily upon this argument. It appears that there is no coincidence that the most recent IOM report supports the arguments of the VA legal team by their silence on the issue. Or do I have that backwards?

The omission of this information from the Agent Orange Update: 2006 appears to indicate that the Department of Veterans Affairs may have put pressure on the IOM to remove references to the existing scientific and medical data which supports the veterans. If it did occur, any such pressure is in violation of the Congressional mandate of the Agent Orange Act and violates all legal and ethical standards.

The Update: 2006 release was apparently tailored to support the DVA's existing court case, Haas v. Nicholson. The data exists to support the claims of the veterans, but the report of the IOM does not reflect this. Even if this exclusion of information merely acts as a delay tactic so that the DVA does not have to acknowledging its responsibility to care for these sick and dying veterans, the VA's case will have been "won" regardless of the final court decree, which may be years away. Its well-planned denial and withholding of financial and ethical obligations to US veterans and its commitment to minimizing liability of the U. S. Chemical Industry will have been met.

The longer the DVA delays in paying any service-connected compensation and related medical costs for exposure of the Blue Water Sailors to Agent Orange, the less money it will need to disburse and the less liability Corporate America will face.

Without full disclosure of scientific and medical evidence by the IOM, the Department of Veterans Affairs believes it can legitimately deny the existence of the damning evidence. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for the Blue Water veteran, this is far from true.

The DVA has much to lose once this existing knowledge becomes more widespread. The DVA has developed strategies to avoid potential lawsuits from a new class of litigants (the class of Blue Water Navy veterans); and strategies that bolster their denial in the legal battle of Haas v. Nicholson. The suppression of the existing data is being used by the DVA to provide more time to think up new strategies to continue the delay - and also to allow specific individuals and corporate entities to retire or expire with the passage of time. By doing to, they intend on ensuring they will never face the overwhelming liabilities that come with a pronouncement by the IOM that real, solid scientific and medical data exists which shows a direct relationship between Agent Orange and contamination of Blue Water Navy personnel.

From the perspective of the DVA, suppression of this data is a Win/Win situation. For the American Vietnam naval veteran, it is at best a ''carry on as usual" situation, which is more of the same long wait. As this wait continues, greater numbers of Vietnam veterans die off due to the Agent Orange poisonings that took place while they honorably served in the combat zone of Vietnam at the call from America between 1963 and 1974.

And the American public sits by, watching this and other absolutely unacceptable abuses of our veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs. This is occurring on a daily basis at a level of severity never before seen in the history of this great nation.

bluewaternavy.org

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Our thanks to the shipmates over at BlueWaterNavy.org, for the fine job of documenting this entire struggle. It is an ugly business, made uglier by its politicization in Washington. There the ugliness is tainted by the hands of all who touch it. In the meantime, we keep dying…and dying…and dying…

VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Emily's Story: How We Got Eddie's Benefits

Emily is one of a unique group of people that we have come to admire and respect. She is the wife of a Blue Water Navy Veteran. When we first came to the issue of Blue Water Benefits under Agent Orange legislation about 5 years ago, we spent a lot of time contacting people and reading the emailed stories that we got back. The stories of the Veterans are depressing and discouraging. They seem resigned to their fate - almost as if they fought a war and don't want to re-fight it to get what they deserve and earned the hard way fighting that war. But the wives and widows of these sailors have a fierce determination, coupled with a quiet dignity that at once engages you, and disarms you. You are shocked by the grit, and the sheer courage, and the indomitable will of these ladies. And when you read their stories, you weep.

You cannot not weep.

Emily is one of those wives. She is a rarity among Blue Water types in that her story is one of success in dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs. As you read the story of how she got those Agent Orange benefits for her husband Eddie, keep in mind that her story is the exception to the rule. For every Emily, there are tens of thousands of wives who have battled tooth and nail against the DVA and not succeeded yet. They have not failed. They have not quit. They will succeed in the end.

Here is Emily's story:
HOW WE GOT EDDIE'S APPLICATION FOR VA BENEFITS APPROVED
My husband, Eddie, is a Blue Water Navy vet. He served in the Navy, half of the time in Vietnam, from 1963-67. He was on a Destroyer where he served as a radar technician. Much of the time his ship was offshore of DaNang and it docked there on several occasions.

In March of 2006, Eddie was diagnosed with Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He had been sick since October, 2005, with flu like symptoms that didn't go away. He started seeing doctors here in Belize where we live starting in November. Finally in February, 2006, he had his first tangible evidence of a medical problem when a lymph node in his neck swelled, only to shrink to normal size after two weeks. Two weeks later the lymph node started to swell again and this time it didn't retreat. Doctors treated him for infections to no avail. In March Eddie had as much of the node as possible taken out and a biopsy showed Eddie had NHL. Surgery was followed by chemotherapy and immunotherapy, both very costly. Fortunately we had some money saved which we used to pay for the initial treatments.

I have no idea why in June of 2006, after we had had one of our ongoing discussions about our dreadful financial situation and the fact that we wouldn't be able to continue with Eddie's treatments on our own forever, it came to my mind that Eddie was a veteran and might be eligible for VA benefits based on his exposure to Agent Orange in Nam. A Google search quickly brought up the pre 2002 AO benefits for VN vets. You can imagine our joy and hope when we saw that NHL was on the list of presumptive illnesses. I continued searching for information on how to apply for benefits. I honestly don't remember when our hopes were dashed after we learned that Eddie fit into an exclusive group of sailors (i.e., Blue Water Navy) not eligible for the AO presumptive coverage. But it was rather quick discovery.

Not knowing what else to do I joined yahoo support groups, memorized the VA website on how to apply for benefits, called the US embassy in Belize City and talked to the American Legion in our small local town. As I recall somebody on one of the yahoo support groups I had joined sent me an article on an NSO who lives in Belmopan who serves vets in Belize. I called him and he immediately offered to drive to us, a five hour trip, to bring applications. He had no idea Blue Water Navy vets were now excluded. He told us he coordinated all vets in Belize through a VSO who is a member of the Order of the Purple Heart in San Diego. The NSO in Belize said that we had to have a very well placed NSO/VSO to help us out, that we couldn't do this on our own. The Purple Heart VSO then told us that there was probably no way to get approval for presumptive exposure if we couldn't build a good case that Eddie had stepped on land in Nam. He said Eddie needed pictures, buddy statements and/or ship records to do this. Eddie had no records of his own, other than his DD214, which I had wisely tucked into the records we brought to Belize with us when we first came down here. But Eddie did have a memory. He remembered the names of a few of his good buddies on ship. Armed with these names I spent hours going through online site after online site that had registers for shipmates seeking former shipmates. It paid off. I found the name and email address of his best buddy who had also been a radar tech on his ship. Today this man works as a nurse at VA hospital. He is by the way, also having issues getting approved for his own VA benefits. He wrote a very cogent buddy statement for Eddie which included clear memories of Eddie's having worked on shore at various times.

It took me hours to fill out the application. I went through it very carefully and answered each question thoroughly. Eddie wrote a long statement which we included with his application. The statement included all the memories he had of where and why he served on land in country. We also included doctor's statements about Eddie's condition. We sent this to our VSO who said the application was fine as it was written. He promised to keep an eye on the processing of our application. Several months later we got a letter from the VA that it was checking ships records, logs, etc. to see if there was support for Eddie's and his buddy's statements. Several months later we got approval for Eddie's presumptive exposure. The letter said there was a preponderance of evidence to support Eddie's claims. Nothing else. The entire process took six months.

Since then our VSO has helped me to get approved as Eddie's dependent and has asked for reconsideration of Eddie's date of approval from the day he applied to the date he was diagnosed. We await a decision on this.

What do I attribute our success to? First, to my dogged research on and offline. Eddie was too sick to do this himself. Second, my good internet networking skills. I methodically went from site to site til I was lucky enough to find a buddy. I also registered Eddie's name on many of the sites that had buddy lists. We heard from several shipmates, one of whom remembered Eddie and would have written another buddy statement had we needed it. I would have written even more of these former shipmates if we had not found Eddie's best friend first. I never was going to give up. Second, the application was readable and very thorough. You need to use all the ammo you can in that application. Third, you MUST have an attentive and well placed VSO who shepherds your application. He can assure that your application gets the attention. Our VSO made our application the squeaky wheel so to speak. I was careful not to bother him often because he works with a bazillion vets. But I also made sure every several months that he was on top of the process. I established a friendly and working attitude with him. He knew Eddie and I would do our parts. I think there is a possibility that just from the ship's records he might have been able to get Eddie's application through because I think the records probably showed the Ship docked in DaNang. But we don't know this for sure. I can't stress enough that you must have a knowledgeable, caring and influential VSO to help you. I guess, as in all of life, a little luck doesn't hurt.
Thank you Emily for sharing your story. We hope it will serve to inspire and instruct others on their journey through the minefield that seeking benefits from the DVA has become.

When our fight for benefits is finally over, we must not forget these women, and the struggles they endured in attempting to win benefits for their men. Theirs is a story of love and courage, and undying perseverence. Theirs is a story of great honor.

VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Navy Vets Die To Protect Corporate Profits!

We have said it before on several occasions, and now it is even more on target than ever:
"It is a stain on this nation's honor that the Department of Veterans Affairs has become a deadlier and more difficult adversary to the American veteran than any they have ever faced on a battlefield."

On more than one occasion we have accused the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs [DVA] with protecting the chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange by prohibiting Blue Water Navy Veterans from receiving presumptive benefits under the Agent Orange Act of 1991. We have explained that by granting presumptive eligibility to the Blue Water Navy Veterans, they would be validating a new class of potential litigants in civil class action suits against the manufacturers of Agent Orange. By doing so, the resulting litigation would be disastrously costly to those manufacturers as they have already lost the same suit with an earlier class of Veterans in the late 1990s. The chemical companies settled that lawsuit, and with a friendly judge, they are currently safe since that Federal judge will not allow the case to be reopened or revisited.

Blue Water Navy veterans came late to Agent Orange, filing more claims from the late 1990s until now. Now, Blue Water Navy Veterans are dying at a faster rate than their Army and Marine counterparts.

The Department of Veterans Affairs saw this trend coming and began maneuvering in the early 1990s, actually not too long after the passage of the Agent Orange legislation in 1991. In 1993, they took out Air Force veterans with a precedent issued by their DVA’s General Counsel. In 1997 they issued another precedent declaring Blue Water Navy Veterans ineligible because they never set foot on the ground in Vietnam. The DVA did not take action on the 1997 precedent until 2002, when it issued a change to their policy manual declaring Blue Water Navy Veterans ineligible. They cut off benefits to many Blue Water Navy Veterans who were already receiving Agent Orange benefits, and stopped approving new claims.

Thus the Department of Veterans Affairs created a whole new class of potential litigants when they stopped paying Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Navy Veterans in 2002. The result is that the judge, or any judge for that matter, would be forced to either allow a new suit, or to reopen the old one, thus paving the way for a quick settlement from the chemical companies, but one that would in the end be ruinously expensive to at least some of the chemical companies who have barely recovered from the first suit.

Now, be clear on this please. The DVA created this new class of litigants in 2002 under then Secretary Anthony Principi, when they cut off benefits they had been paying for over a decade to Blue Water Navy Veterans. So this class of litigants is three years old now. What would provide this class with the cause of action necessary to file a class action lawsuit will not occur unless and until the VA restores presumptive eligibility status to the Blue Water Navy Veterans. That act validates the legal connection between Agent Orange and your disability. The prevention of that act, then, provides protection to the stockholders of the chemical companies. It has nothing to do with the DVA being understaffed, or under funded, as Secretary Nicholson has repeatedly claimed. The sole reason for denying Blue Water Navy eligibility is to protect those stockholders from a new or re-activated class action law suit.

Further, such a judgment would seriously affect the U.S. stock market, shaking confidence in some of our largest corporations.

The Institute of Medicine [IOM] is tasked to review scientific studies related to Agent Orange contamination and forward the results of those studies to the Department of Veterans Affairs for consideration in making policy changes. The Agent Orange Update: 2006, released at the end of July two weeks ago, forwarded the results of two studies that showed limited evidence of a link between Agent Orange contamination and both hypertension, and AL amyloidosis in Vietnam Veterans. The DVA will now consider this data for the possibility of making changes to the qualifying diseases included in benefits for Agent Orange contamination.

What is missing from the Agent Orange Update: 2006, and from previous reports, is any mention of the dozens of scientific studies linking Agent Orange contamination with Blue Water Navy Veterans. We do not know if the IOM panel that drafts the Agent Orange Update purposely ignores the overwhelming evidence of a direct link to Agent Orange contamination of Blue Water Navy Veterans, or whether the DVA pressures the IOM not to include said data, but either way, the result is that Blue Water Navy Veterans go without benefits, while the stockholders of the manufacturers of Agent Orange, and the other dioxins, continue reaping their stock dividends.

To all you Blue Water Veterans out there: you are being sacrificed on the altar of corporate stockholder protectionism!

We can wait, if you want. We can wait for months, or longer, for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to issue a ruling on the DVA’s appeal of the Haas decision, and risk that they will also protect the chemical companies, for that would be the only reason for them to rule in favor of the DVA. The overwhelming evidence is against the DVA on this, but money talks.

Wait if you want. We can’t. Nor can we take the risk of an adverse ruling.

How many more have to die without benefits before we get justice?

Frankly, we don’t plan to be anybody’s sacrificial lamb. We plan to be an angry and avenging lion. We want Nicholson, and his predecessor Anthony Principi to go to prison for this, and anyone else who is complicit. And by prison, we do not mean some cushy Air Force base in Florida, we want them to do time in a Federal Penitentiary, and become some inmate’s wife for their term. These men consciously allowed graft and corruption to rule their decisions at great cost to the Blue Water Navy Veterans.

We believe that a great and ugly crime has been committed against us by Nicholson, Principi and the chemical companies. It includes conspiracy, official misconduct, collusion, at the very least. There may even be bribery involved.

Someone, either the DVA, or the IOM, or both, is suppressing scientific evidence that would validate Blue Water Navy claims under Agent Orange legislation. The arguments the DVA is making in the Haas case currently in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit are wholly and completely without merit in the face of the overwhelming evidence in studies done by the Australian government, the scientific community, and even by our own U.S. Navy! The 1990 Zumwalt Report was ignored almost in total by the DVA because it validates scientifically that Blue Water Navy Veterans serving on ships working close in shore were contaminated by Agent Orange and other dioxins sprayed near the coast. For the past few years the DVA [and the IOM] has ignored, suppressed, or otherwise avoided facing the scientific evidence that validates our claims.

There is no other reason for their doing this than to protect the stockholders of the chemical companies from potentially costly settlements should Blue Water Navy Veterans be officially validated for service connection to Agent Orange Exposure.

Shame on them all for being so greedy that they would sacrifice the lives of thousands of war veterans to protect a bunch of greedy stockholder profits. This misplaced sense of ethos deserves to be smacked down hard by any and all legal methods.

Now it is up to us to seek justice, and force the United States Government to right a grievous wrong.

We have tried to get the news media involved and they ignore us.

What will it take to get an investigation rolling?

Everyone knows someone. Call any and all reporters, editors, newspaper, radio, TV station owners, and get them to commit to this story. Call your Congressional Representative and your Senator. Complain, loudly and firmly!

The Vietnam War may have ended for the United States on April 30, 1975, but on August 10, 2007 it is still claiming thousands of victims. It is time for that to be recognized and dealt with fairly, honestly and openly by our Government, and our corporations.

VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.