10 Things The VA Wants You To Know About Agent Orange

Photo courtesy of the VA website.

Photo courtesy of the VA website.

The official blog for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, VAntage Point, has produced a “Top 10 List” of important information all veterans should know about the herbicide Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War. It was sprayed on trees, vegetation, forests and waterways along boarders in Cambodia, Laos, and in South Vietnam.

The list is below, and you can read the full details on today’s VAntage Point.

  1. Agent Orange was a herbicide and defoliant used in Vietnam.
  2. Any Veteran who served anywhere in Vietnam during the war is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.
  3. VA has linked several diseases and health conditions to Agent Orange exposure.
  4. Veterans who want to be considered for disability compensation must file a claim.
  5. VA offers health care benefits for Veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides during military service.
  6. Participating in an Agent Orange Registry health exam helps other Veterans and the VA.
  7. VA recognizes and offers support for the children of Veterans affected by Agent Orange who have birth defects.
  8. Vietnam Veterans are not the only Veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange.
  9. VA continues to conduct research on the long-term health effects of Agent Orange.
  10. VA contracts with an independent, non-governmental organization to review the scientific information on Agent Orange.

The VA blog entry is written by Dr. Ralph Erickson, a 32-year Army Veteran of the Gulf War (1990-91) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) who has also served as Commander of The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research; Command Surgeon, US Central Command; and Director, DoD Global Emerging Infections and Response System (DOD-GEIS).

Chairmen Call for Wholesale Change in VA Health Care

The official  photo of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The official photo of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs has set a hearing Oct. 7 at 10 a.m. to discuss A Call for System-Wide Change: Evaluating the Independent Assessment of the Veterans Heath Administration.

The 168-page Independent Assessment was also the focus of a joint statement released Friday, Sept. 18, 2015 by Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (GA-R), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“When we requested an independent assessment over a year ago, many of the failures at individual hospitals were well-documented. However, we all feared that they were just the tip of the iceberg. This in-depth review justifies those fears, and validates Congress’ efforts for years to investigate and uncover the many serious issues preventing the Department of Veterans Affairs from providing America’s veterans with quality, timely healthcare. The VA can no longer deny that its problems, as outlined in this report, are deep-seated and systemic. From delays in care and scandal cover-ups, to rampant unaccountability and a lack of leadership, the VA is an organization challenged at every level.

“This is not just another report to sit on a shelf collecting dust. Failing to act on its findings would be a great disservice to the men and women who have worn the uniform and to the values that make our nation great.

“We know that the Commission on Care will be closely examining these assessments and recommendations, and we look forward to the commission’s plan to end this continuing national tragedy. As the assessment confirms, fixing the VA will require a lot of time and hard work. This report is yet another reminder that it is far past time for President Obama to come to the table and work with Congress to transform the VA into an organization worthy of those it serves.”

World War II Vet Says VA Denied His Mustard Gas Claim

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies from his basic training filed VA claims in 1991 after the mustard gas testing they were subjected to was declassified.

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies also exposed to mustard gas filed VA claims in 1991 after the testing was declassified.

This week, NPR has revealed that the U.S. military conducted chemical weapons experiments on American soldiers and sailors during World War II.

It also found the Veterans Administration did little to help the thousands of veterans exposed to mustard gas.

John Tedesco, 88, is a Tampa Bay area veteran who said he was exposed to mustard gas in basic training — before he shipped out to the Pacific in 1944.

Like many who enlisted during World War II, Tedesco was young when he signed up for  the Navy in November 1943. It was less than a month after he turned 17 years old.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

By January 1945,  Tedesco and several friends from Erie, Pennsylvania were in boot camp together at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station just north of Chicago.

That’s where Tedesco said he and a couple of his buddies were exposed to mustard gas. He said no one objected – at the time – you did what you were told to do.

“We were all young, 17 years old – 18 years old. You know,” Tedesco said.

He doesn’t remember the specifics of the mustard gas test — but he recalls what came next.

“The day after, I remember, they used to have two doctors and corpsmen come at noon and they checked us over,” Tedesco said. “For about a week, they did this and then we never seen them no more. That was it.”

In a few months, Tedesco was on his way to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and later New Guinea. He would serve 21 months overseas. He was discharged May 2, 1946 in California.

“I’ve had breathing problems ever since I went into the Navy,” Tedesco said. “I don’t know if it was because I started smoking while I was in the Navy or if it was the mustard gas. But something’s bothered me ever since.”

Tedesco said he suffers from asthma and had to retire early from his job as a carpenter and building contractor, at age 57, because of chronic breathing problems.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

He said he and some of his friends filed claims with the VA in 1991 when the mustard gas experiments were declassified. Their quest was written up in the local Erie newspaper.

But Tedesco said his claim was denied. He said he tried again when he got more proof – a copy of a letter a friend wrote while they were in boot camp together.

“And in that letter, he mentioned that we were mustard gassed and he had my name mentioned that we were there,” Tedesco said.

But again, the VA denied his claim, Tedesco said.

That’s when  he just let it go because he didn’t want to jeopardize the disability payment he does receive for hearing loss and a leg wound suffered in the war.

The VA has responded to NPR’s series on Broken Promises To Vets Exposed To Mustard Gas and lawmakers are promising take action including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, vice-chairman of the US House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Bilirakis’ office has reached out to Tedesco to offer help getting his VA claim reviewed.

Senate Passes the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary's emails pertaining to an "alternate wait list" at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary’s emails pertaining to an “alternate wait list” at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

A bill aimed at improving veteran accessibility to mental  health care has passed the US Senate and now only needs President Obama’s signature to become law.

The US House passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act on January 12, 2015 for a second time.

The House also passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act in early December 2014. But the bill was killed in the Senate by outgoing, US Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

The bipartisan legislation not only embraces new ideas to improve the effectiveness of VA mental health care it also requires annual reviews of program effectiveness.

“The Senate did the right thing today by passing the Clay Hunt SAV Act. The bill is an important step toward helping stop the epidemic of veteran suicides,” said US Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a news release.

New VA Secretary Gives His Cell Number to Change Culture

VA Secretary Bob McDonald

VA Secretary Bob McDonald

Have you ever heard of a cabinet member giving out his personal cell phone and email?

That’s exactly what the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald did to a room full of reporters during a news conference in Washington D.C. according to the Stars and Stripes.

While McDonald – who corrected a reporter who referred to him as Mr. Secretary by saying, “I’m Bob, really” — may be a little easier to reach now, the effectiveness of a 90-day plan he unveiled to fix a badly-broken program VA health care system is likely how veterans and observers will assess the beginning of his tenure.

McDonald is trying to make the VA culture more veteran centric. His initiative “Road to Veterans Day” focuses on reforming the department over the next 90 days.

He said there are three steps to the reform: regaining the trust of veterans, improving service to veterans and developing long-term excellence in the system.

You can read the secretary’s full comments here.

McDonald acknowledged there are currently more than 100 investigations into cases at VA facilities by the VA and outside agencies.

Another Veterans’ Town Hall Set for Today

James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Tampa, FL.

James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Tampa, FL.

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center, 13000 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., is inviting veterans and their families to voice their concerns about service and share their ideas on how to improve at a town hall today, Sept. 4, 2014, at 3:30 p.m.

It is the second such veterans’ town hall held in as many days in the Tampa Bay region.

The Bay Pines VA Health Care System held a town hall Wednesday. About 60 veterans attended the Bay Pines event seeking updates and explanations on their specific cases, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

The town halls, reaching out to veterans, are among the steps outlined by the new Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to improve access to care for veterans.

The Haley town hall is planned in the second floor auditorium on the main campus.

New Study Debunks 88 Percent Dropout Rate for Vets

D. Wayne Robinson, president of the Student Veterans of America, announces results from the Million Records Project at a news conference broadcast over the internet from George Washington University on March 24, 2014.

D. Wayne Robinson, president of the Student Veterans of America, announces results from the Million Records Project at a news conference broadcast over the internet from George Washington University on March 24, 2014.

Student veterans using their GI education benefits between 2002 and 2010 graduated from colleges and universities at the rate of 51.7 percent according to researchers with the Million Records Project.

That graduation rate is in stark contrast to the erroneous 88 percent dropout rate among student veterans that two national news organizations reported in 2012 using flawed data.

But ever since those erroneous reports by NBC News and the Huffington Post, the Student Veterans of America (SVA) organization has been fighting the misconception that student vets are at high risk of dropping out.

So the SVA teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse to start the Million Records Project with the goal of developing accurate data on student veteran graduation rates.

Researchers collected information from the VA on nearly 1 million student veterans and paired it with data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The data was scrubbed of any identifying information and then turned over to the SVA.

The Student Veterans of America President D. Wayne Robinson announced the project’s initial findings Monday.

“Fifty-one-point-seven percent of today’s veterans are completing their programs of study and we’re confident that this number will continue to grow as time passes and Post 9-11 GI Bill users have the opportunity to earn their degrees,” Robinson said. “I am very proud to report this number.”

He said the graduation percentage is similar to the general population which he finds remarkable considering the additional challenges that student vets have to handle.

In addition to worrying about academics, 47 percent of student veterans have families and many hold fulltime jobs. Additionally, many Reservists and National Guard members may have their academic year interrupted by a deployment overseas.

Robinson pointed to the example of Kiersten Downs, now a doctoral student at the University of South Florida, who served four years in the Air Force and then joined the Air National Guard while attending college in New York.

“While pursuing her political science degree at Binghamton University in New York, Kiersten’s unit was mobilized just three weeks before finals,” Robinson said. “And so, she was forced to put her education on hold to deploy.”

The Million Records Project is not over, instead, this was just the first of several reports. Future research hopes to look at specific programs and their success at helping student veterans reintegrate and excel  in higher education.

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