The benefit checks from the Department of Veterans Affairs were a lifeline for Charles and Dolores Cooley, as critical to their financial health as the oxygen tube Charles wears is to his physical health.

But that lifeline was severed last year when the VA determined that awarding Cooley benefits for exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War had been an error.

Having their benefits cut off has set the Cooleys down a slope to financial ruin. She is 66; he is 67. They live in a double-wide trailer on a grassy lot in the Drifting Ridge subdivision off Durkeetown Road in Fort Edward.

Their income, from Social Security and his pension, is about $2,000 a month, but their bills often exceed that.

She has been drawing from a retirement account but that money will run out, probably by the end of the summer. Then, Dolores said, they'll have to sell the house.

"We would never be able to buy another home," she said. "I would most likely have to go back to Long Island and move in with one of my kids, which I'm not looking forward to that.

"I don't know what to tell you. Everyone in my family knows, we are givers, not takers. I'd give my last dollar to somebody. But this is owed to him, and he should have it."

Charles Cooley is a Vietnam veteran suffering from diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, diseases that have been linked to Agent Orange exposure. Most Vietnam veterans with these afflictions are presumed to have been poisoned by Agent Orange, a dioxin-laced herbicide used by American troops to defoliate jungle areas in Vietnam.

But Cooley belongs to a particular group called "blue water veterans," whose members served as sailors, patrolling near the coast without ever setting foot in Vietnam.

The original Agent Orange legislation, which passed in 1991, applied to any active military veterans - Army, Navy and Air Force - who "served in the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam era." (See full text of the Agent Orange Act online at poststar.com)

Veterans who had received the Vietnam Service Medal, as Cooley did, and had medical conditions linked to Agent Orange, qualified for benefits.

Over the years, more studies were done, and the list of presumptive medical conditions grew longer. Veterans with the qualifying conditions did not have to prove their illness was linked to their military service. Exposure to Agent Orange was presumed to be the cause.

Charles Cooley developed diabetes in the early 1990s. He went on insulin a few years later and, in 2001, he began receiving federal benefits. At first, he was compensated at a 10 percent level, later at a 40 percent level. By 2009, his benefit payments came to about $600 a month.

His health worsened over time. In 2005, he suffered a heart attack.

Last winter, he stopped driving because his legs were so weak he could no longer climb out of his pickup truck.

"He's gotten to the point he falls out," Dolores said.

At home, the most exertion he can manage is shuffling from one room to another.

In 2008, he and Dolores applied to have his compensation raised to 100 percent. He was insulin-dependent, which is sometimes used as a determinant of total disability, and he was too weak to work.

When the Cooleys told Sam Hall, the Washington County veterans service officer, they wanted to apply for 100 percent disability, he warned them against it.

Hall explained that, in 2002, the federal government reinterpreted the Agent Orange Act, narrowing its reading of the phrase "served in the Republic of Vietnam" to include only those soldiers who had set foot on the ground in Vietnam.

Later, that interpretation was broadened to include the country's inland waterways, but not its coastal areas.

Hall warned the Cooleys that a review of Charles' compensation under the new standard might lead to a revocation of his benefits.

But the Cooleys had counted on Charles' benefits increasing as he became more disabled and had bought their home with that expectation.

"I should have never counted on the VA," Dolores said.

Ignoring policy

The Cooleys' benefits should have been safe, despite any change in legal interpretation.

Once compensation is awarded, it is not supposed to be taken away, even if rules are changed.

The Agent Orange Act says a veteran awarded compensation for a disease will continue to receive benefit payments even if the disease is later removed from the presumptive conditions list.

And last year, the head of the federal office in charge of veterans compensation addressed in a policy letter the very situation in which Charles Cooley found himself.

The letter was sent last September to VA regional offices around the country by Thomas Murphy, director of compensation and pension services for the VA.

It says, "if a Blue Water Navy Veteran was previously awarded presumptive service connection based on herbicide exposure when the broad standard was in effect, that service connection cannot now be severed."

That policy was ignored in Cooley's case. He had been awarded benefits under "the broad standard," but when his case was reviewed, the "service connection" was severed.

Cooley served on a destroyer, the USS Lynde McCormick, deployed along the Vietnamese coastline for six months in 1964.

The VA's July 2009 decision to cut off his benefits says, "According to the evidence received there is no indication that the McCormick ever berthed in Vietnam, thereby giving the crew an opportunity to actually step on land."

The VA determined that, because Cooley could not prove "in-country service," the awarding of his benefits had been a "clear and unmistakable error."

But using the "clear and unmistakable error" standard retroactively, as was done in Cooley's case, is improper, according to the letter from Thomas Murphy.

Citing court decisions, Murphy's letter says the VA cannot use new interpretations of the law to invalidate earlier awards.

On Friday, Laurie Tranter, a spokeswoman from the VA's public affairs office, said the policy spelled out in Murphy's letter is still in effect.

But, when VA officials considered Charles Cooley's claim, they did what Sam Hall had predicted. They rejected Cooley's application for 100 percent compensation and cut his benefits from 40 percent to zero.

Last March, the Cooleys' checks stopped coming.

Tomorrow: VA delays mean many veterans give up on claims, or die waiting.

 

(22) comments

dot2dot

Certainly not my field of expertise but I suspect the "Blue Water" decision was based on a high number of claims that probably were undeserved. While 100% disability might not have been deserved based on Agent Orange exposure the decision to remove all disability is very wrong. Basically the VA discovered its earlier "error" in granting such lax Agent Orange disabilities that it tried to "scare" veterans out of applying for higher levels. Kind of like a double or nothing gamble with a person's future. I would hope the VA will right the wrong in this situation and put the 40% level back into effect. The more I hear of the actions of the VA and other federal agencies the more disgusted I get. It seems the only thing they are good for is keeping themselves in business. They do little to actually serve the people who need the help. In fact you can probably say they actually prey upon those who are in the most need because they are the most vulnerable.

upstatehunter

Every time I read these articles, my blood gets boiling. We can't give a man who fought for our country a lousy 7200 dollars, yet all these illegal people from outside the country get what ever they need. Wake up America, we have lost our sense of direction. We voted in a president who cares not for our military what so ever. Didn't even bother to attend the memorial day ceremony in past years. If we continue to go the route we are, I'm betting we get taken over by a country that has it's priorities straight with regards to it's people and their path to attain their goals.
Most likely they will be facilitated by our leaders...

BertaSimmons

This is a story that should be in every major headline across our nation.The plight of Blue Water Navy veterans who served during the Vietnam War and who were awarded Agent Orange compensation under an older regulation might well find themselves in the same tragic position as this veteran does. As a veteran's advocate I assume this veteran had a time frame regarding appellate rights with which to continue to fight this denial of benefits yet I don't see in the story-if he has appealed this decision any further.
Has the letter from Thomas Murphy been submitted to the VARO yet as evidence that they MUST consider in order to restore this veteran's proper compensation? (I cite 38 USC 4.3 and 4.6 as to evidentary requirements)
I have dealt with VA for over 20 years and this story reflects exactly how arbitrary the VA can be, even with a directive from a higher VA authority than a local regional office regarding VA case law.That happened to me. General COunsel-VA fixed that when I griped.

DENNYB

MR CHARLES COOLEY SHOULD CHECK INTO A VET'S BEMEFITS PROGRAM (VETERABS IMPROVED PENSION WITH AID AND ATTENDANCE)THAT IS NOT WELL PUBLISIZED. HE WOULD PROBABLY QUALIFY FOR THE BENEFITS. CHECK INFO AT WWW.WARVETERANSBENEFITS.COM.

sasquatch

For various reasons, diabetes is a part of life everywhere in the world. And peripheral neuropathies, including sensations or numbness in the limbs, is a common effect of diabetes. There have been assertions that soldiers in some wars got ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) at an abnormally-high rate, perhaps due to exposure to some chemicals. But it was never proven. From here, we cannot speculate how this veteran would have been exposed to Agent Orange. Certainly he should have listened to the Veterans' Service Agent. And if we had encouraged Hillary to replace insurance companies, Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans' insurance with one single-payer national health insurance, which would be the same coverage for all citizens (union, non-union, politician, veterans, draft-dodger, and etcetera), all doctor, hospital, and RX bills would go to the same, single office. Even for Sarah Palin and her son who has Down's Syndrome. And even for Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich.

tomnchris
tomnchris

except for the "veteran" writting here, I have a question: what the hell is wrong with this? I know of at leasst ONE undeserving "veteran" who hurt himself while stationed stateside in a drunken vehicle accident. this joker RECEIVES all kinds of bennies, including a monthly check. while I am not one to criticize service for our country at all, I find this appalling(considering the person I mentioned was able to work full-time and retire with NYS bennies as well.) Fraud and abuse are clearly a matter of concern; however, a simple audit of the various claims would certainly benefit the truly suffering and the truly deserving veterans of our country. Besides, those who have served and who are serving currently, these vets are a minority of the American population.GOOD PEOPLE TREATED LIKE COLLATERAL DAMAGE::: you know, fodder

ZENCI2

Don't even wind me up about this! We have, and have had governments for ages, which drag men from their jobs and families to kill the rich man's enemies, then when they are no longer of use, those same governments simply kick them to the curb. They can give themselves salary increases, bonuses for nothing, but cannot find a way to give to the people who they sent off to kill other people they aren't even angry with. Our wounded, disabled military members deserve our utmost respect, concern and support. We can surely support them financially once they are no longer able to do that themselves!

ZENCI2

[quote]dot2dot said: "I would hope the VA will right the wrong in this situation and put the 40% level back into effect. The more I hear of the actions of the VA and other federal agencies the more disgusted I get. It seems the only thing they are good for is keeping themselves in business. They do little to actually serve the people who need the help. In fact you can probably say they actually prey upon those who are in the most need because they are the most vulnerable. "[/quote]

Hear! Hear! I couldn't agree more! But, isn't that the way with most bureaucratic agencies? They exist to help, but the ones they help the most are themselves, making certain they don't rush anything, so as to retain their own jobs.

Gloria35j

If a Vietnam Veteran can't prove that he "touched ground", according to the VA representatives, they can't put a claim in for any possible related agent orange side effects. Agent orange was spread by air doesn't it make sense that our Naval personnel were exposed through the air they were breathing off shore?

WebMadison

Agent Orange, a 50-50 mixture of two herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4,D, was first used by the US military in Vietnam in 1965.
I spent one year living in a tent in the Central Highlands and last year put in a claim for Heart Disease-- IHD-CAD connected to Agent Orange. I had Quad-Bypass open heart surgery three years ago and got awarded only 10% for Heart disease-- It's a joke-- That and a nickle gets me coffee. Many Vietnam Vets received $200,000- $400,000 back pay
for Heart Disease plus $3000/month for the rest of their lives
Web

Sceptical Mass

We owe veterans so much, and, really, give so little so often.

The VA is a horror show of career paper pushers sitting across the table from each other putting off getting anything done in a timely fashion for fear of being too efficient and getting the department downsized due to too much help.

My son's disability claim awarded from his Iraq service is overdue since last November for no discernable reason.

Frustrating? I guess maybe.

This gentleman's situation should be on Rep. Gibsons' desk ASAP.

fictionpen

This man was warned if he opened the case up that he could possible lose the money he has been collecting for many years since he had no proof of ever coming into cont!act with Agent Orange. He scammed the government out of money for all those years and wanted more, wonder if the VA will want the scammed money back?? He did commit fraud after all, never stepping foot onto soil and his medical conditions all come from his diabetes nothing from Agent Orange so please stop the victim story here the only victim is the taxpayers he scammed for so many years!

daklander

The issue here is the time frame. The veteran in question had his claim approved in error and after about a decade AFTER the Blue Water Navy Veterans were removed from presumption. While it's a tough deal of the cards at least he does not have to return the money like he would if a bank inadvertanly placed funds into his bank account.
He should be eligible for SSDI and possibly VA pension though the imcome limit is pretty low.
This veteran should be riding his Senators and Representative to get a Blue Water presumption restoration act enacted. Two sites advocating that are vasvw.org and bluewaternavy.org. A proposed restoration act is located on the documents page of the VASVW website.

politicoQB
politicoQB

I love and respect our veterans and think they often get the shaft from our bureacratic nightmare of a government. However, how many details are left out of this story and others like it? Does the claimant smoke 3 packs of smokes a day? Do they eat high-fat, low-nutrition meals/fast food/processed foods on a daily basis? Because if you look around folks, more than half of us are at or near this poor man's level of declined health. More people are obese, have Type II diabetes, and eat garbage than at any point in the history of civilization. And most of them weren't anywhere near agent Orange.
Does this man deserve some sort of lifetime compensation just for having served our country? 100% absolutely. But are we sure that every veteran's bad health and obesity is caused by the US Government? I don't think even Mr Cooley believes that in his heart of hearts.

daklander

[quote]Sceptical Mass said: "We owe veterans so much, and, really, give so little so often.The VA is a horror show of career paper pushers sitting across the table from each other putting off getting anything done in a timely fashion for fear of being too efficient and getting the department downsized due to too much help.My son's disability claim awarded from his Iraq service is overdue since last November for no discernable reason.Frustrating? I guess maybe.This gentleman's situation should be on Rep. Gibsons' desk ASAP."[/quote]

VA disability claims generally take a couple of years to go through the system unless every "I" is dotted and every "T" is crossed exactly as the VA determines. Anything in error causes paperwork to have to go back and forth and notices of disagreement and appeals add to the time. If a claim can get through the system in under a year it's nearly a miracle.

scooter

[quote]politicoQB said: "I love and respect our veterans and think they often get the shaft from our bureacratic nightmare of a government. However, how many details are left out of this story and others like it? Does the claimant smoke 3 packs of smokes a day? Do they eat high-fat, low-nutrition meals/fast food/processed foods on a daily basis? Because if you look around folks, more than half of us are at or near this poor man's level of declined health. More people are obese, have Type II diabetes, and eat garbage than at any point in the history of civilization. And most of them weren't anywhere near agent Orange. Does this man deserve some sort of lifetime compensation just for having served our country? 100% absolutely. But are we sure that every veteran's bad health and obesity is caused by the US Government? I don't think even Mr Cooley believes that in his heart of hearts."[/quote]

Exactly what I was wondering.

agentorangelegacy
agentorangelegacy

This is a very sad story indeed. There are many more Blue Water Navy veterans suffering. The families of all veterans exposed to agent orange are on the brink. Agent Orange Legacy supports Blue Water Navy veterans. If you are the child of a veteran exposed to agent orange we want to hear from you. Join us today http://www.agentorangelegacy.ning.com. Agent Orange Legacy is mobilizing to fight for the services, support, and rights of the children of Vietnam veterans (veterans exposed to agent orange) exposed to agent orange and their families. Find us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/agentorangelegacy TY Sharon Perry, Founder aolegacy@gmail.com

Itisjustme

I think there is abuse of every system, but lets not punish the veterans that really do deserve the money due them! My brother was one of the "good" guys...that came home and suffered in years of silence from his service of his country in Vietnam. He worked long after he should have to provide for his family, and he never asked for anything from anyone! NOW he is suffering tremendously and he is being disregarded and passed back and forth in Red Tape and excuses. It is so true what others have commented about our country pouring billions of dollars to other countrys and illegal aliens but our VERY OWN HERE go without! What a travesty!

boston

Having personal experience with Agent Orange and being an early member of the Spina Bifida Assc., I have to say that this story is typical of most of those who have beyond a doubt been affected from Agent Orange and now Depleted Uranium from the Gulf Wars. If you think for one minute that the same government that caused thousands of first responders to suffer and die as a result of telling them that " The air is safe to breath", then do you question thier real concern for veterans in need after suffering from the effects of Agent Orange or Depleted Uranium? I could write a book about my personal experiences which to this present time still affect my life and my daughter who has never walked one step in her life. Mr. Gibson promised in from of many folks to talk with me about the VA BS, but that was three months ago and I guess the GE lobby pays him more than I ever could,so I'll just NOT hold by breath.

cloudinsky

First off having any sickness is horrible. Veterans ship year 1964 was on carrier duty and plane duty at Yankee station which was 150 miles off the cost of vietnam. Agent orange was sprayed on foliageThe chemical was mixed with diesel oil.
If the Veteran has proof that agent orange floated out 150 miles then he should bring that proof to the veterans admin.

tomnchris
tomnchris

Perhaps : because there was a draft, the gov't had more fodder and collateral damage to dispose of...many came back anyway...of many who came back suicide, homelessness, drugaddiction etc. were their way out of the tangle and mess of promises
Perhaps: because there is no draft now, there are fewer and fewer young men and women willing to go through the same disheartening, disallusioning "promises" made by the very people who ALWAYS make sure THEIR kids are not fodder and collateral damage, rather they are the very ones who benefit DIRECTLY from others doing the defending for them. I am saddened and disheartened as well...MY SON and DAUGHTER will NOT volunteer. My Father was a POW during WWII, my husband volunteered during Nam...my family has paid dearly and plenty for the rights of others.

Sick Sailor

The VA does what it wants, how it wants and when it wants. It would take hours to describe the medical problems that have occurred to me. I am a BlueWater Navy Vet. I started having heart problems at age 32 had my first angioplasty at age 33, I have diabetes (the only one in my family for 3 generations back on both sides of family) I started having the diabetes in my late 20's. I have psoriass(at least that's what the VA tellsme. Again only one in family for 3 gens. on both sides. Have had 22 heart procedures, heart attack and triple bypass heart surgery at age 37. Have 8 stints in my arterys. The few medications that the VA sells me are only generics and not the best and latest drugs available. I have hands and feet problems, along with the weakness in my legs, the same as those having been exposed to Agent Orange. Yet I am told that since I didn't set foot on land I didn't get Agent Orange illness. I am going blind from the diatetes, yet no help from the VA.

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