September 27, 2011

Agent Orange Woes Draw Attention From Blumenthal, National Vets Group

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Over the years, Andy Gow of Wallingford didn’t know what to make of word that more and more of his former Air Force buddies were being diagnosed with prostate cancer or diabetes.

Then, in 2003, he got the news firsthand—he had both diseases – and began to connect the dots.

“I never had boots on the ground in Vietnam, but I know for a fact that they were spraying Agent Orange” at Udorn base in Thailand, about 10 miles from where Gow was stationed from 1967 to 1969. “A lot of the guys who are sick have filed claims with the VA, but they’ve all been rejected. It doesn’t seem right.”

{media_1}Gow was among about a dozen veterans who met Tuesday in Rocky Hill for an informal discussion of Agent Orange exposure with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., state veterans affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz, and Rick Weidman, executive director for policy & government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America. Blumenthal and Schwartz convened the meeting to begin forming an action plan to help Vietnam veterans suffering from health problems connected to Agent Orange exposure get compensation from the VA.

“The health problems of our veterans who were exposed to substances used in Vietnam, without any real knowledge, are something we should not ignore,” Blumenthal told the group. “This is a step towards educating us to see what we can do.”

The group said that while the VA has taken steps to expand the list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, the agency has yet to recognize claims from veterans who did not serve in-country, but were exposed to residual toxins in the U.S. and other countries. That issue is of special interest in New England, where many Air Force reservists from Connecticut and Massachusetts flew out of Westover Air Force Base on planes that had been used to spray the herbicides.

A C-HIT story earlier in September examined the claims of Westover veterans who say they suffer prostate cancer, diabetes and other illnesses that they believe are connected to their work on contaminated “spray planes” at Westover.

{media_2}At Tuesday’s meeting, two of those former reservists – Dee Holliday of Windsor Locks, and Archer Battista of Belchertown, Ma.—spoke of the need to spread information about possible exposures to their crewmates who flew out of Westover between 1972 and 1982. They said many veterans have not made the connection between their illnesses and their work on the spray planes.

“More than half of the veterans today who are fighting prostate cancer have no clue that it has anything to do with their service in Vietnam,” said the VVA’s Weidman. “Their families receive nothing, and they have no idea that their spouses died for their country.”

The VVA is pushing for policy changes that would afford all veterans exposed to Agent Orange toxins, regardless of where they served, the same benefits as those who served in Vietnam.

“Just because you weren’t there when they were spraying doesn’t mean you weren’t exposed,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz told Blumenthal that she would like Connecticut to establish a “health registry” for all state veterans that would catalogue which veterans are sick with which illnesses, in the hopes of identifying clusters or trends.

Weidman said his group also is hoping to catalogue exposures to Agent Orange outside of Vietnam, in order to make its case to the VA. He said the federal government prefers to “add people in small chunks” to VA’s benefits’ caseload, “so you don’t have to go to the Senate for a big amount of money… If you add incrementally, then there’s not an explosion.”

Blumenthal said he planned to meet with more veterans around the state to discuss possible policy changes that could assist the veterans in receiving compensation.

One thought on “Agent Orange Woes Draw Attention From Blumenthal, National Vets Group

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