In 1971 in an attempt to address increasingly debilitating mental health circumstances I sought assistance from the VA at Togus VA Hospital. While there I filed a claim for what was termed then as a “nervous condition”. Associated with the “nervous condition” was a record of poly-substance drug abuse. The emphasis that the VA chose to take was to emphasis the poly substance drug abuse as the cause of the “nervous condition” which they were incorrect as the poly substance drug abuse was an attempt at self-medication on my part to try to deal with my so called “nervous condition” as it was called as there was no terminology of PTSD at the time and interestingly enough while at Togus VA the emphasis on treatment besides group and individual psychiatric therapy was drug therapy with Thorazine, Elavil and a host of other mood altering drugs. My claim was denied. In 1985 after losing my first marriage and coming close to losing my second marriage, at the pleading of my second and present wife, many jobs and the loss of many, if not all friends and abject social isolation, recently being laid-off from my job and trying to work at the Navy Yard at Kittery, Maine in the apprentice program, my depression reach an unbearable point where on the urgent request of my wife I sought help from a counseling service in Sanford and began seeing Mr. Robert Paige, LCSW.
I was diagnosed with PTSD at that time and upon seeing Dr. John Scammon, Psychiatrist at the counseling service, who concurred with Mr. Paiges’ diagnosis. Upon seeking assistance from the State of Maine Veterans Service Representative, Mr. Campbell Colton, a claim was filed with the VA at Togus VA Regional Center. Subsequent claims for medical conditions, all service connected, were filed in later years. From 1985 to 1992 claim after claim was denied.
I provided documentation, ships logs from my ship, U.S.S. Richard S. Edwards (DD950), U.S.S. Newport News (cruiser), U.S.S. Saint Paul (cruiser), U.S.S. Collette (destroyer) that not only detailed firing on coastal defenses, gunfire support missions, harassment and interdiction fire but of receiving fire from various units of the enemy both from Vietnam but also islands off of the coast of Vietnam and north of the DMZ. Letters from shipmates (buddy letters) were also provided that corroborated my previous testimony. Photographs were provided showing wounded being high-lined to hospital ships such as Repose and Sanctuary. Because the ships log was incomplete and inaccurate the VA used that as a basis for denying my claim. I had to further provide a stressor was the VA primary qualifier.
It reached a point that I felt that unless I had the serial number of the round going past that I would never win. There was even one occasion in the process that the VA paperwork reflected that I was in the Army in 1971 with a previous record of being in trouble with the law and trouble in school while being born on July 3, 1952. The opposite was the true story, I was born in July 3 , 1947, was in the Navy and had no problems with the law or school. This was all in one document. Even though my brother had no claim filed with the VA, the VA had my brother and I mixed up . This dual portrayal was not designed to help my claim but to cast doubt on the validity of what the evidence was. On one occasion I had an interview with a Psychiatrist because the VA failed to provide him with stressor documentation I had already provided made an other than PTSD diagnosis but after the documentation was provided a panel of Psychiatrist, a diagnosis of PTSD was reached.
From 1992 to the year 2000 the claim was pursued for increased rating and retroactivity. The decision for that was reached in December 2000. This was agreed upon as a result of my agreeing to not pursue my claim of CUE (clear and unmistakable error) that were a result of the VA Togus previous rulings being thoroughly vacated by the BVA in Washington and the Federal Appeals Court for the VA. During this claim process and evidence gathering process I requested assistance from the VA in acquiring evidence. It is my understanding that if the veteran request side from the VA in seeking records the VA is supposed to help. This assistance was not forthcoming. As I understand it the VA also give the veteran the “benefit of the doubt” and that if the VA cannot provide a preponderance of evidence to counter the veterans claim then they must rule in the veterans favor. This didn’t happen. Only when I found out from a shipmate that we had been awarded the Combat Action Ribbon did the VA relent. From that point on it was a matter of my filing claim after claim for percentage increase and retroactivity. During that time I felt it was necessary to retain counsel but in 1998 due to changes provided by legislation provided by congress the VA regs created a situation where I had to give up counsel and after a time I asked the AMVETS for their assistance.
It needs to be noted that during the time between 1985-2000 in pursuing my claim I received help from Senators Cohen and Mitchell and Representative Tom Allen, Mr. Robert Paige LCSW (counselor) and contacted to provide information Judge Greene, United States Court of Veterans Appeals, Attorney General of the United States Janet Reno, Richard B. Standefer, Vice Chairman Dept. of Veterans Affairs Board of Veterans Affairs and sought confirmation of ships activity from the Republic of Vietnam office at the UN. When I was finally awarded the 100% P&T for chronic and severe PTSD I lost the percentages that I had for medical disabilities previously awarded and the disability for hearing loss was removed from my medical record I just recently learned after seeking again treatment for sores and skin rashes that I associate with Agent Orange exposure that I filed a claim for in 1991.
The VA acknowledges Chloracne and Acne form disease as indications of Agent Orange exposure but blue water Navy isn’t acknowledged by the VA as being exposed to chemical agents while offshore. I would have thought that the VA could make the leap from “sores and skin rashes” to Chloracne and Acne form disease. Apparently they can’t. In their most recent action in that regard titled: VA Adjudication Procedures Manual, M21-1; Rescission of Manual M21-1 Provisions Related To Exposure to Herbicides Based on Receipt of the Vietnam Service Medal an interesting item the VA uses to discount blue water NAVY from being exposed is that because chemical agents used as herbicides when heated as on board ship to desalinate seawater for drinking, cooking, showers becomes concentrated much more than when diluted in seawater. The VA position is that it doesn’t know if ships used desalinators while at sea to convert sea water to fresh. This borders on ludicrous. There are ships systems that require fresh water, people require freshwater. The ship I was on operated in I Corp and north of the DMZ. I was there in 1967-’68. I Corp was one of the heaviest sprayed areas in VietNam. The years of the heaviest spraying for I Corp is 1966-’69. My ship was anchored in DaNang harbor and on one occasion went up river that is mentioned in the ships log. The conclusion I would draw from this is that we were subject to exposure to chemical herbicide agents.
The VA has several areas it could improve : 1) Claim processing with and for the veteran2) Abiding by the law as passed by the Congress, is: the HAAS Case be Proactive FOR Veterans 3) Medical: There are 100% Disabled veterans that doctors have asked for tools from the VA Togus to help with medical conditions that are being with held. Veterans that should receive the gold standard in medical care whether having heart surgery or colon cancer surgery or treatment for peripheral neuropathy, traumatic brain injury whether in West Roxbury, Togus VA Hospital or where ever. Be more proactive in the VA medical care of its veterans with regard to budget requirements. Provide counseling, in-house- to veterans just after surgery for rehab services. My own brother recently had colon cancer surgery and was sent home 5 days later instead of going to a rehab facility. While at home the following day with coughing and sneezing and throwing up , all his stitches broke and his guts came out. After being taken to a hospital after being stabilized he was operated on again twice. Once to debreed and remove the guts to clean and put them back and a couple of days later to close the wound leaving a space for the wound to heal from the inside out. He is scared to death of going back to Togus VA but tomorrow morning the 18 of April he is going. He was told that if he didn’t go to the VA hospital the VA would not pay for his hospital care. He also is 100% disabled.
It is my hope that by providing this testimony that it in some way it helps. Either the VA can provide some relief to its veterans or the ironclad legislation necessary to compel the VA to do what is necessary for veterans should be forthcoming. The VA history regarding Agent Orange and the HAAS case is yet another example of the VA shirking their responsibility to the veteran. Add to this the attempt of the VA, at present time , to reinterpret the DSM IV protocol for PTSD to the benefit of the VA and not the veteran demonstrates a level of hubris that is amazing. The 900 lb. gorilla in the room that may prevent any good coming from this is money or rather, the lack of it. America’s veterans providing the freedoms that we have deserve no less than the full support of the VA. The American people understand the need to support our veteran population. Servicemen and women understand and expect that if they need help when they come home the help will be there. We should not disappoint them by a lack of action. The one thing I ask from this committee at this time is their assurance there will be no retribution against me or my family by the VA regarding my testimony. I submit as well a copy of suggested legislation designed to address Agent Orange legislation for blue water Navy.