For Vietnam War veterans and their families who may be struggling with the lingering effects of Agent Orange exposure, help is on the way.
The newly formed Knoxville Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, is holding an Agent Orange town hall meeting from 6-9 p.m. Tuesday at the Community Action Center in Knoxville to assist veterans, dependents or survivors in filing claims for federal benefits related to exposure to the toxin.
“The purpose of this town hall meeting is to really get information to veterans and family members, especially children, who may be suffering from their involvement with Agent Orange,” Vietnam-era veteran and Lenoir City resident John Conway said.
A representative from U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s office is expected to be on hand, as well as the state Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Red Cross.
“One of the things that we hope will happen with this meeting, it’s about educating the veterans first and foremost,” Conway said. “We’re not a political organization. We can’t go out and engage in campaign work, but we can lobby.”
Gary Ellis, president of the new Vietnam veterans chapter in Knoxville, said the town hall meeting could also assist family members who may not be privy to the benefits they can receive.
“Most veterans know about that, but a lot of their wives don’t understand that they may have some pension available after their spouses are gone, and even more importantly, there are some spouses who didn’t know they were due a pension and their husbands didn’t know before they died before they made the decisions on what actually constituted a valid claim for Agent Orange,” Ellis said.
Ellis, who returned from his tour in Vietnam in the early 1970s to serve in the Tennessee National Guard, said that while plenty of residents are receiving benefits, a lot are still waiting for their claims to be approved.
“If we help a few people then we’ve done some good, and that was our goal just to try to provide information and give those Vietnam veterans a place to meet people who have like experiences,” Ellis said.
Lenoir City resident Earl Webster is one veteran who is still waiting to receive benefits. He suffers from acute peripheral neuropathy, which he said is related to his time of service in Vietnam as part of the U.S. Army combat infantry.
His initial claim, filed in February, was denied, and he is currently going through the appeals process.
“They don’t give a reason,” Webster said. “They just denied it, and the VA doctor and all said that was caused from Agent Orange, and my neuropathy doctor he said it was. Everybody said it was from Agent Orange. Everybody’s admitted to it, but the government, we’re Vietnam soldiers. We’re the forgotten, so you might as well forget it.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, the agency recognized peripheral neuropathy as a result of Agent Orange when the disease appears within one year of exposure with 10 percent disability or if the illness is temporary and resolves within two years. In August 2012, the agency proposed to eliminate the requirement that the illness dissipates in two years.
“The Institute of Medicine found evidence that symptoms can persist longer than two years,” according to the agency’s website. “The condition must still be 10 percent disabling within one year of exposure for VA to presume an association.”
Don Smith, with the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, said that from the VA’s standpoint, the requirements for receiving benefits is cut and dry based on the list of diseases that qualify.
“The only difficulty a veteran ever has with a claim with the VA in relation to that is No. 1, if they can’t prove they were in the country of Vietnam proving their exposure to Agent Orange, and beyond that if they have something they feel is related to it, but it is not on the VA’s presumptive list, then their threshold of burden of proof is extremely high,” Smith said.
Smith said one problem arrives because troops were commonly moved around a lot and proper documentation may not have always been kept.
“It’s things like that that make it difficult,” Smith said. “It’s not impossible. It requires a little bit more documentation on the part of the veteran to prove that exposure if they’re not in one of the presumptive groups.”
“It’s a difficult thing for some, but unfortunately, unless the VA gets that verification of that exposure they are bound by law,” Smith added. “There’s nothing they can do.”
Conway said that in addition to providing information on VA benefits to veterans, he hopes the new Vietnam veteran chapter serves as a support tool for vets who may have similar experiences, from Agent Orange exposure to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s just a lot of anguish out there that we hope to have an organization for them to come, and if nothing else, if people come and let off steam and talk about (their problems) kind of like of a group therapy kind of thing,” Conway said. “If they can talk about what their problems are maybe somebody in that group can come up with an idea that here’s how we can help you.”
“... You don’t have to look very far, you don’t have to scratch very hard or dig very deep to find that there are just tons of problems that were first page news 40 years ago, but they’re still there,” he added.