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Blue Water Veterans
Derek Pruitt - dpruitt@poststar.com Charles Cooley sits at his home in Fort Edward on Thursday, May 5 2011. Cooley, a blue water veteran\u002c served on the U.S.S Lynde McCormick during the Vietnam War. He is currently suffering from a diabetes, arterial disease, neuropathy in his legs and asbestosis. Cooley believes many of his ailments are related to Agent Orange exposure during his service, but because he didn't set foot on land, he is not eligible for veterans benefits.

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.

 

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