President Trump’s firing Wednesday of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin should not come as much of a surprise, following numerous reports of scandal and incompetence surrounding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
From Shulkin’s travel expense scandal to well-documented reports of waste, fraud and abuse throughout the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, the VA has sadly become synonymous with substandard care and corruption. Unfortunately, my family and I recently experienced this agency’s malfeasance firsthand.
Last fall, "The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, ” which aired on PBS., renewed interest in the conflict and enabled many of us to see for the first time the conditions under which members of the military fought and sometimes died for our country.
Although it was over 16 hours long, one thing left uncovered in the series was that our veterans continue to die from the Vietnam War decades later – and many have been abandoned by our government.
My job is to fight for government accountability, ethics and transparency. I have been surprised by cases before, but this time I am actually embarrassed by our government and horrified by its treatment of our veterans – even decades after the official Vietnam War ended.
I would never have imagined this to be the case if I had not witnessed it firsthand. My father was a Vietnam veteran who gave his life for our country decades after his service. He spoke of direct exposure to Agent Orange while serving multiple tours in Vietnam as a helicopter crew chief.
Many years later, he had polycethemia vera and then myelofibrosis, two rare blood cancers in the leukemia family called MPNs, which affect many Vietnam veterans. He was convinced his diseases were caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, but the VA refused to acknowledge it in his case – as it does in so many others.
In fact, the VA refuses to cover these diseases and pay service-related benefits to veterans in the vast majority of cases. The reason the VA fails these veterans is not because Agent Orange wasn’t the cause, but simply because it has not included these specific blood cancers on its “presumptive list” of diseases caused by Agent Orange.
As a result, veterans with these diseases are discouraged from even applying for benefits relating to Agent Orange exposure. And if they do, they must navigate a long and difficult process designed for them to fail.
Not only must the veteran present complex medical and scientific evidence perfectly, but it must be done in opposition to his or her VA doctor, who naturally testifies in favor of the VA.
It can be difficult to find a doctor who specializes in treating these rare diseases, and many veterans do not have the resources to do so. Nearly all fail.
The VA cannot credibly claim the science is not fully developed to include MPNs on its presumptive list. There is no question that Agent Orange is toxic and causes cancer.
The VA explains: “Dioxin is a highly toxic substance and found in Agent Orange.” It further admits that Agent Orange causes blood cancers, including Chronic B-cell Leukemias, Hodgkin’s disease, Multiple Myeloma and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – some of which have similar characteristics to MPNs.
After reviewing many cases and reading a declassified military document, another toxic level of Agent Orange becomes clear. At the government’s direction, Agent Orange was mixed with jet fuel, which contains toxic chemicals like benzene directly linked to causing these rare blood cancers.
In addition to the historical and scientific evidence, Vietnam veterans are afflicted by these rare blood cancers at a disproportionate rate. The VA already knows this. But the agency finds that Agent Orange is the cause and pays service-related benefits for these rare diseases only when cases are presented perfectly. This is extremely hard and dependent on the resources a vet has.
There is no logical explanation for only a few of our veterans to be rightfully compensated, rather than all. These diseases lay dormant for decades and are usually diagnosed when a veteran is in his 60s or 70s. All those brave young 20-somethings in the late 1960s are now approaching or at the age of diagnosis. They are finding a rare disease is not so rare for them.
There is no doubt we are dealing with an aging population that our government exposed to a “highly toxic substance.” Sadly, the VA is simply refusing to pay rightful benefits and waiting them out. But the time to correct this injustice is now – countless other vets can be helped if we do.
My job is to fight for government accountability, ethics and transparency. I have been surprised by cases before, but this time I am actually embarrassed by our government and horrified by its treatment of our veterans – even decades after the official war ended.
There are many problems with the VA, but in this case standing up for our veterans is imperative and it means demanding that these rare blood cancers are added to the VA’s presumptive list of diseases.
If you are a veteran with one of these rare diseases, you can contact MPN Advocacy & Education International – an organization that advocates on behalf of veterans with these rare diseases – to add your name to a list of hundreds of others and aid the fight for these diseases to be covered.