Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Wives’ Letters

They write. They call. They fax. They file form after form. They drive wherever they need to go in order to document, present, appeal, or argue their case. And they are frequently shut out.

No sailor wants to make that last voyage without providing for his widow, and/or his family. So one of the ways to do so is to file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs under the Agent Orange Act of 1991. Unfortunately, and apparently illegally, the DVA stopped approving claims in 2002 for Navy Veterans who served in the “off shore waters of Vietnam”.

…John was hospitalized three nights ago with what has been diagnosed as pneumonia resulting from multiple myeloma. The doctors aren’t holding out much hope. What can I do? We’re out of money. John’s claim was denied because he did not set foot on the ground…

In many cases, those sailors with pending claims died before their claims were decided. Their claims died with them. Their widows got…absolutely nothing.

In 2002, the DVA modified their procedural manual to stipulate that a veteran filing for Agent Orange Presumptive benefits must provide proof that he actually set foot on the ground in the Republic of Vietnam. The DVA made this change after issuing a “precedential opinion” in 1997 from their own office of General Council. They did all of this on their own, without any instigation from Congress, the White House, or the various Veterans Service Organizations. But they also made the manual change without offering it up for public comment first.

…My husband served three tours on Destroyers off the coast of Vietnam between 1965 and 1971. He never set foot on the ground there. In 1998 Bob was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes, and a year later with cancer of the prostate. They operated, and he tested clear of the cancer for a while, but in 2005 his PSA suddenly skyrocketed. He went in for tests and they found the cancer was back and it had spread throughout his body. They removed one of his lungs late last year, but by summer the other was full of cancer. He was hospitalized repeatedly. None of the treatments really worked. They sent him home last week, in time for his 60th birthday, with days to live. His claim with the VA died with Bob this morning at 5:17 AM. I have no idea what I will do now…

I receive three or four of these a week. Every week. Fifty two weeks a year. I read them through my tears, and theirs. God! How could so many sailors have been so blessed with such strong wives!?

How could an agency of the United States Government act in such a crass and inhumane manner? Not only was their action illegally done, it was unjustified and unjustifiable, as we feel confident the court will say in its upcoming decision in the Haas case. It was a cruel and heartless action, done coldly. My first claim was rejected in 2003 with the words, “You did not serve in Vietnam.” I have the medals, and the cruise book, and the envelopes and letters sent home free from the combat zone to prove it.

To be perfectly honest, I pray that people like Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson, and the author of the precedent that was used to change the manual, May Lou Keener, rot in the lowest level of Hell for all eternity. So grievous were their actions that even that fate may be too good for them.

…he had been treated for heart disease and other problems for about five years, all after being diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. Yesterday after lunch he went in to take a short nap. When I went to wake him for our afternoon walk, he was gone. He should have gotten VA benefits, but he was denied and never appealed it. The Lord knows we could use the money for his funeral, and to pay off the mortgage on the house. I don’t want to lose this place. It has too many memories of us in it…

They come in email, and in their words, through our tears, I see theirs. And in their words I see behind their tears an aura of nobility, grace and strength. These are not women to be trifled with, to be shunted aside with barely a glance, or ignored completely.

These women fulfilled a compact with their sailors, and because their sailors fulfilled a compact with their government, and died as a result of that compact, their wives must be compensated, even though their husbands were not.

We strongly urge the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association to take up this cause and make it one of their goals, to see that justice is done for these good and strong women – the wives, widows, and daughters of our Blue Water Naval Veterans of the Vietnam War.

What the DVA did in 2002 was not only illegal, but because it was illegal, it was stupid. Because they did not follow due process of the law, they made a clear and unmistakable error in changing their policy without asking for public comment first, as required by law. Any of their actions subsequent to that policy change are therefore illegal if the DVA personnel followed that policy in the changed manual section.

The United states Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which is where the Haas case sits at present, awaiting a decision from the three-judge panel that heard oral arguments in November of 2007, should address this issue when it renders its decision. Because the DVA erred, anything that was ruled subsequent to that error based on that error, must be reviewed and overturned and benefits issued retroactive to the date of the claim. That includes any claims that died when the claimant died, any claims that were rejected based on the erroneous policy change, and appeals that were denied based on that change. Everything in those categories should be reconnected and reprocessed back to the date of the original claim…non-severed by any failure to appeal as well. It was the DVA that erred, not the claimants.

The court should also rule that all these claims should be processed to the issuance of benefits within 6 months, including retroactive benefits.

…God gave me thirty wonderful years with my sailor, and I treasure every second of those years. Even the cross words that were sometimes exchanged will be sorely missed. When he took that final voyage last spring, the VA had not completed his claim. Now they won’t even answer my letters and calls. I had to put the house up for sale last summer, and am now living in a small apartment downtown so I can get around. But it is a dangerous neighborhood. I’ve been mugged twice, but all they got was a few dollars. They could have asked me for it and I would have given them the money. Ralphie would have given them each a bloody nose for their trouble. Sometimes, when I am trying to make a decision, I think, “what would he have done?” I was a housewife, I get no retirement from Social Security. I have a little bit left from Ralph’s IRA, and from the sale of the house, but that will be gone in a few years. I don’t know what I’ll do then…

We owe these courageous women a debt that goes far beyond mere gratitude. In many cases, we owe them our lives. Not many of us are financially secure. The presence of VA Benefits will go along way toward building that financial security for us to leave behind. Our wives, and children deserve it because we earned it, and they did, too. They care for us in our pain and illness, they comfort us, they haul us around to doctors, clinics, labs, and offices, and in between all that other stuff they write, phone, fax, and email on our behalf.

Gentlemen, Attention on Deck! To the indomitable and courageous wives, widows, sweethearts, and daughters of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans, hand salute!



"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. Anonymous16:59

    Many of us who are survivors/spouses of Nagasaki and Hiroshima "deceased or otherwise" Vets, are very much concerned. As for now certain illnesses are presumptive, may get disqualified as it applies to Naval occupation forces that assisted Marines and Army clean-up and land, repatriat allied forces after the Atomic bombs dropped, if the DVA gets their way. Their agenda is to carve out a smaller and smaller group of cohorts that might qualify, and pay less and less to ALL Bluewater Veterans

  2. Anonymous17:19

    I don't understand how our government can pay so much money to "bail" rich people during this economic crisis, and conveniently "forget" about our service men and women who gave so much for us defending our country. The money needed to cover the claims submitted for illnesses created by chemicals encountered during Vietnam service and subsequent service in Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan, probably wouldn't be much more that what the "bail-out" is eventually going to cost. Why can't they do what is right and help the families of the men and women who gave their lives for their country--it is help that is long overdue.