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After stories, benefits restored to Vietnam veteran

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Blue Water Veterans
Derek Pruitt - Charles Cooley sits at his home in Fort Edward on Thursday, May 5, 2011. Cooley, a blue water veteran, served on the U.S.S. Lynde McCormick during the Vietnam War. He is currently suffering from a diabetes, heart disease, arterial disease, neuropathy in his legs and asbestosis. Cooley believes many of his ailments are related to Agent Orange exposure during his service, even though he didn't set foot on land.

FORT EDWARD -- Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs have responded to a recent series of stories in The Post-Star about the plight of a Vietnam veteran whose benefit payments were cut off by reviewing the man's case, then restoring his payments at a higher level.

The VA also determined the veteran, Charles Cooley, 67, of Tori Trace, was owed five and a half years' worth of back payments. A check for the back payments was deposited Thursday in the bank account of Cooley and his wife, Dolores, 66.

Their first monthly compensation check for $2,800, which is the 100 percent disability level, was also deposited Thursday in their account.

Until last year, the Cooleys had been receiving monthly compensation checks of about $600, a 40 percent disability level, because Mr. Cooley suffers from diabetes and associated complications, including coronary artery disease.

Vietnam veterans suffering from diabetes and certain other illnesses qualify for compensation because the diseases have been connected to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, which U.S. forces used in Vietnam.

But the Cooleys' payments were cut off last spring, after they applied for an increase in Mr. Cooley's compensation level. Since then, they have been draining their savings to pay their bills.

The Post-Star stories, which ran June 5-7, detailed how the Cooleys were running out of money and feared losing their house.

A worker in the VA public affairs office saw the stories online and alerted his supervisors, according to Sue Malley, director of the VA's New York Regional Office.

In their review, VA officials determined Mr. Cooley's benefits should not have been severed. Also, the review determined some of his past benefits should have been paid at a higher level - first at 60 percent, then at 100 percent - because of his coronary artery disease and the heart attack he suffered in the fall of 2005.

The check for the back payments makes up the difference between the payments he received, at 40 percent, and the ones he should have received at the higher levels. It also includes the payments missed over the past year after his compensation was cut off.

Mrs. Cooley didn't want to reveal the amount of the check for back payments, but it's enough, on top of the increased compensation, to provide them with a cushion for their retirement.

"We'll be OK," she said.

The Cooleys' benefit payments are permanent and cannot be reduced or taken away, according to Frank Logalbo, an assistant manager at the VA Regional Office.

The VA staff was glad to have been alerted to the Cooleys' case, he said.

"That's what we're here for, to help as much as we can," he said. "We have an office of folks here who are compassionate and interested in helping veterans."

The VA review found a December 2009 rating board decision to sever Mr. Cooley's benefits was made in error. Cooley had asked for a board hearing to be postponed because he was ill, but, instead, the board issued its decision without a hearing.

The hearing should have been rescheduled, Logalbo said.

Logalbo's review also found the original determination that Cooley's diabetes were connected to his military service cannot be revisited, because he has been suffering from diabetes for longer than 10 years. Once the 10-year threshhold has been passed, a service connection cannot be severed except in cases of fraud.

The many others

The reason the VA rating board gave for cutting off Cooley's benefits last year was that he is a blue water veteran who served in the Navy off the coast of Vietnam but never set foot on land.

The Agent Orange Act of 1991 covered all Vietnam veterans suffering from diseases linked to the poisonous herbicide.

Cooley first qualified for benefits in 2001, so was unaffected by a narrowing of the act in 2002 to exclude Air Force and Navy veterans who could not prove they had set foot in Vietnam or cruised its inland waterways.

But when he sought an increase last year, the VA applied the new standards to his case and cut him off.

Applying changes retroactively, as was done to Cooley, violates federal policy, according to a training letter sent out last fall to all VA regional offices by Thomas Murphy, head of the agency's Compensation and Pension Service.

John Rossie, director of a national advocacy group, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, unearthed the training letter a few weeks ago and pointed out its relevance to Cooley's case.

Rossie said the VA will often respond if you can prove rules were not followed.

"If they get caught doing something and we can point it out by regulation, they do their turnabout," he said. "But, unless you've got something like that to lean on, it's an arm-wrestling contest."

But many veterans need help they aren't getting, he said, and, in the absence of a front-page story, their circumstances are unlikely to change.


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