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:
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.


"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

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1 comment:

  1. God Bless Emily! Her story is a true inspiration!
    Shelia Snyder