|Agent Orange spray mission (www.blogs.va.gov)|
Beset by cancer and several other debilitating diseases, retired Air Force Master Sergeant LeRoy Foster is fighting what may be his last battle.
“The VA is killing us,” Foster wrote in a recent Facebook message of his and other veterans’ experiences in trying to get appropriate, if belated health care after exposure to the toxic chemicals the military called Agent Orange that were used in the Vietnam War.
Foster, who lives in a small town in New York state, has fought for years to get VA officials to acknowledge that he was exposed to Agent Orange during a tour of duty on Guam, where he sprayed the herbicide to kill tropical vines and bushes along runways and fuel pipelines for the Air Force, which was flying bombing missions on Vietnam from the Pacific island. The VA’s answer is that Foster doesn’t qualify for Agent Orange health assistance because he didn’t serve in Vietnam.
“I have 28 autoimmune diseases,” Foster says of the plague of ailments—including spinal stenosis, degenerative joint and disc disease, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer—that began to cripple his body after he retired from the Air Force in 1987.
“If I could live longer I wish I could help the VA bring awareness to the medical community nationwide as well as our veterans and families,” Foster wrote amid an update on cancer treatments he is undergoing after a misdiagnosis of hemorrhoids was recently found to be a malignant tumor.
“Medical malpractice is running rampant,” Foster says of his VA experiences. To make matters worse, he contends, VA officials in Washington knew decades ago that the dioxin in Agent Orange is linked by medical studies to the very diseases Foster has suffered from. He doesn’t understand why doctors at VA hospitals continue to express ignorance of this association, even though the VA has in recent years considerably expanded its official list of diseases presumed to be linked to dioxin exposure.
The VA’s missteps on Agent Orange shed light on the agency’s dysfunctions on a number of health issues for veterans of current and past wars. That’s the contention of Air Force veteran Richard E. Phenneger, who published in 2012 an online report on his extensive investigations into this matter, titled “Legacies of War: The Truth About Agent Orange in Vietnam.”
“While searching the Internet in November of 2009, I stumbled upon Admiral E.R. Zumwalt’s 1990 REPORT TO SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS ON THE ASSOCIATION BETWEEN ADVERSE HEALTH EFFECTS AND EXPOSURE TO AGENT ORANGE... The Admiral’s Report was emblazoned with “CLASSIFIED – NOT FOR PUBLICATION AND RELEASE TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC,” Phenneger wrote, noting that Zumwalt had served as Commander of Naval Forces in Vietnam and later as the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, the highest rank in the Navy.
Zumwalt’s report, prepared in the wake of the death of the admiral’s son, who served in the Navy in Vietnam and died of cancer at age 42, Phenneger concluded, “identifies the most likely cause of the VA’s reprehensible conduct today: its failure to properly and timely care for our current returning soldiers.”
After years of statements by government officials that there was nothing to worry about, Zumwalt’s May 1990 report to the Secretary of the VA “charged the Department of Veteran Affairs with duplicity, fraud and deliberately manipulating scientific data to get the ‘answers it wanted,’ that the dioxin Agent Orange was not the cause of the illnesses and premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of our Vietnam Veterans,” Phenneger wrote.
Zumwalt’s research with a team of independent scientists found that a bureaucratic maze had been constructed to mislead veterans seeking answers to severe health problems. “Were the faulty conclusions, flawed methodology and noticeable bias of the [VA] Advisory Committee an isolated problem, correcting the misdirection would be more manageable,” Zumwalt wrote. “But, experience with other governmental agencies responsible for specifically analyzing and studying the effects of exposure to Agent Orange strongly hints at a discernible pattern, if not outright governmental collaboration, to deny compensation to Vietnam Veterans for disabilities associated with exposure to dioxin [Agent Orange].
“Shamefully, the deception, fraud and political interference that has characterized government-sponsored studies on the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange and/or dioxin has not escaped studies ostensibly conducted by independent reviewers, a factor that has only further compounded the erroneous conclusions reached by the Government,” Zumwalt added.
Phenneger, who served as an Air Force pilot in the Vietnam War, dug further to find out why the federal government would have taken such a stance.
“In an interview on July 26, 1999, Admiral Zumwalt reported finding a memo circulated by the Bureau of the Budget in the early 1980s ordering all agencies of government in essence not to find a correlation between Agent Orange and health effects, stating that it would be most unfortunate for two reasons: 1) The cost of supporting the veterans and 2) The court liability to which corporations would be exposed.”
“We need medical evaluation boards watching the VA,” says Foster, who worked after his Air Force service as a financial auditor for the Department of Defense.
“The important part is the autoimmune diseases,” Foster said of what he feels is a deliberately hidden finding in Zumwalt’s 1990 report, which listed a number of diseases that scientific studies suggested were linked to dioxin exposure. “They wouldn't let the truth come out. Classified it for 20 years so we would die off.”
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