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A Rare Victory

Vietnam Navy veterans struggle to prove, and keep, Agent Orange benefits.

A Huey helicopter sprays the Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam. U.S. Army photo
A Huey helicopter sprays the Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam. U.S. Army photo

Surgeons started removing strange growths from Mark Crosbie’s body a few years after he came home from Vietnam. Over the next three decades, they took sebaceous cysts from the Navy veteran’s back, and one from his elbow. They removed a growth that had spontaneously developed under the skin of his left cheek and abscessed. They performed fistula removals too painful to discuss.

Two of the surgeons asked Crosbie if he had served in Vietnam. But they wouldn’t elaborate when he asked why they seemed to associate the cysts with his tour in Southeast Asia.

As a result, Crosbie didn’t pursue a connection between his health problems and his service until he went to VA for help with his type 2 diabetes in 2003. The first VA doctor he saw told him she suspected he’d been exposed to Agent Orange. She insisted he receive an evaluation from an environmental medicine specialist and file a claim.

By that time, Crosbie suspected his cysts and his wife’s half-dozen miscarriages were related to herbicide exposure during his 20-month tour on USS Lloyd Thomas in and around the waters of Vietnam. He couldn’t apply for federal benefits for either health problem, since VA doesn’t recognize them as Agent Orange-related illnesses. But he could file a claim for type 2 diabetes and neuropathy.

“That’s when I started running the gantlet,” Crosbie says.

VA rejected Crosbie’s claim twice over the next six years. He’d never set foot in Vietnam, and therefore didn’t meet the “boots on ground” requirement for Agent Orange disability benefits. He also couldn’t find records to prove that his ship had sailed up a Vietnamese river on a covert mission in December 1970. That would have made him a “Brown Water” veteran – someone who had spent time in Vietnam’s inland waters, which VA acknowledges were contaminated by Agent Orange.

Crosbie had given up, when he connected online with shipmate Charles Yunker, adjutant of the The American Legion’s Department of Kansas. Yunker was trying to prove that Lloyd Thomas had been on that covert mission on a Vietnamese river as more and more of its crew contracted cancer and other illnesses tied to Agent Orange exposure.

With the help of the ship’s navigator, Mike Balog, damage control officer Rick Hokans, deck division officer Bob Moore, and John Delgado of the Australian Special Air Service, who was on board during the mission, Yunker was able to establish that Lloyd Thomas had anchored in the heavily contaminated Gành Rái Bay and Saigon River estuary in late December 1970. That, along with evidence from the ship’s deck logs, qualified Lloyd Thomas for VA’s list of Brown Water ships.

Yunker, along with Kansas American Legion service officer Bruce Oakley and Boston service officer George Cameron, helped Crosbie file a new claim in 2010. In December, eight years after filing his first claim, VA finally granted Crosbie’s Agent Orange claim for type 2 diabetes and neuropathy based on the new evidence Yunker unearthed.

“Legion to the rescue,” says Crosbie, a member of Alberton W. Vinal Post 313 in North Chelmsford, Mass. “Without Chuck and the Legion, I and all my shipmates would have been left out in the cold.”

Crosbie’s battle is typical of what Vietnam Navy veterans endure when they file claims for the cancers, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease linked to Agent Orange. The Agent Orange Act of 1991 provided benefits for all Vietnam veterans with diseases caused by the toxic herbicide. But the Bush administration changed the rules in 2002 so that only veterans who can prove they stepped foot in Vietnam or sailed on Vietnam’s inland waters qualify.

Proposed new legislation to restore Agent Orange benefits for Navy veterans who were on ships operating within 12 miles of Vietnam during the war won’t simplify the claims process, says Jeff Davis of the Veterans Association of Sailors of the Vietnam War.

Under H.R. 3612 – the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2011 – many veterans will still be forced to find the deck logs in the National Archives or Navy archives that establish that their ship meets the criteria for exposure. That’s an undue burden that puts claims out of reach for most of them. 

The legislation also faces considerable hurdles. “I think our real challenge right now is maintaining the benefit we have,” says Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. There was an effort last summer in Congress to limit Agent Orange benefits. “We beat that back ... but the people who believe that we should not be funding (Agent Orange benefits) are going to be back at us, particularly in tight budget times.”

Last year’s assault on Agent Orange benefits was led by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who criticized VA’s 2010 expansion of Agent Orange benefits to include ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s and B-cell leukemia. Two Vietnam veterans – Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. – also criticized Agent Orange benefits.

Vietnam Navy veterans also continue to run into problems at VA, which has not, as of this writing, provided information requested by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, on the number of Brown Water cases it has reviewed. Akaka asked for the review in September 2010 after his staff discovered that VA had rejected claims from 16,820 Vietnam Navy veterans without reviewing ship logs or other evidence showing that the veterans had served in areas that may have been exposed to Agent Orange.

In April 2011, VA officials said that about 6,700 cases had been reviewed and 20 ships added to the Brown Water list. VA says it cannot provide an estimate of how many additional cases it has reviewed since last year because of the significant growth in all claims, including Agent Orange cases. 

Other members of the Lloyd Thomas crew, meanwhile, are now pursuing claims. Crosbie warns that they should be prepared for a long and frustrating process – one that, in his case, eventually ended in victory.

Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.

 

abbyjoy

June 2, 2012 - 11:02pm

So sorry, many Vets don't have children to pass any possible benefits to. It seems the Govt has denied passing any AO benefits on to surviving family members, just in case there might be family still alive to collect. I saw the story about the WWI vets that had to march in DC to get their bonuses as promised before the Great Depression and it still took several generations to get FDR to agree to pay up. Just sad we still have to continue the fight before vets exposed to AO will get a dime.

dalepotter

June 1, 2012 - 7:18am

I was in a land clearing division in Vietnam. I do not understand how a man such as John McCain can be against the Agent Orange bill but I have learned that there are many things that I don't understand concerning that war; things such as the tumors and cysts popping up all over my body, sudden loss of hair including eye brows and lashes, tremors, heart disease and of course the loss of baby's due to early miscarriages. A short period of time after I was home from Nam, my wife suddenly got sick and almost died and the doctors could not diagnose the problem, but then just as suddenly, she got well, (seemingly). It was after that when the miscarriages occurred. these are strange and debilitating events that seem to be prevalent to the Vietnam Vet, and I am no exception. I could understand if I were the only fellow vet that was suffering these maladies, but it is strewn through all of us and it is an atrocious thing that our government would have the audacity to deny any Vietnam Vet this presumption, but it does happen even from former POW'S. "I guess you just had to be there"??

Zoobie

May 31, 2012 - 4:31pm

Been on 'Hold' for quite a while now. Guess that's better than denied. Meanwhile, the Periphal Neuropathy is getting worse; my liver is covered in Cysts; I have an extra protien in my blood, which 'could' lead to MM; Lost half of my left lung, they called it Cancer w/Asbestos.Andn I'm on hold because the VA is backed-up with Claims! Maybe I can at least, leave something to my family.Nam vets never counted to the generation now in Congress!!!

jstan40

May 31, 2012 - 3:38pm

This issue is exactly what prompted me to join the American Legion in the first place, soon after separating from the Army in 1966. Keep the pressure on the VA...veterans of ANY operation deserve treatment in a timely fashion!

Lamaku10

May 31, 2012 - 2:28pm

denied, that's what they like to say. the logs are easy for them to get but not for us.

jsinkc

May 23, 2012 - 10:36am

What if you were in USN and several times you moved 100 of ton's of equipment from Nam laced with Agent Orange but you can't proof it to the VA? No records have ever been turned up via several ROI requests so how can I find these records? I have applied and been denied 6 times or more and I was infolved in a class action suite against the government propting the changes in the laws you have outlined.

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