August 9, 2013

Our View: Agent Orange's legacy lingers in Maine

After granting benefits to a dying N.H. veteran, the VA should review Gagetown disability claims.

Paul Bailey, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is gravely ill. Until this week, he wondered how his wife would be able to stay in their New Hampshire home after he dies of cancer.

click image to enlarge

Maine Army National Guard troops load a round into a howitzer gun during training at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick in a 2001 file photo. Agent Orange and other herbicides and defoliants were sprayed at Gagetown from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.

2001 Press Herald file photo/Gregory Rec

But on Monday, the 67-year-old Bailey received notice that the Department of Veterans Affairs had reversed its denial of his Agent Orange-related disability claim -- making him possibly the first veteran to be compensated for exposure to the toxic defoliant after the Vietnam War.

The VA's decision could also be good news for Maine Army National Guard troops who have filed disability claims for illnesses that they believe are linked to their service at Gagetown, a Canadian military base where Agent Orange and the like were sprayed from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.

The VA should consider the Bailey ruling a wake-up call and make it a priority to review other rejected contamination claims. No veteran should be denied the care they've earned, and, like Bailey, many of the people exposed to Agent Orange at Gagetown don't have much time left.

In its recent decision in the Bailey case, the VA acknowledges that "reasonable doubt" favors Bailey's claim that he was sickened in the 1970s, while stationed at a Massachusetts base. There, he often flew C-123 aircraft that had been used to spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Granted, it can be difficult to prove a definitive link between chemical exposure and later-life illness.

But Washington Post coverage of the C-123 crews' illnesses suggests the VA has a blanket policy in postwar Agent Orange claims. This policy draws on studies that concluded what the department wanted to hear: that post-Vietnam Agent Orange contamination on the planes wasn't great enough to be linked to disease.

Outside medical experts, on the other hand, have said the VA's findings on C-123 contamination are based on "erroneous assumptions."

Given this skepticism, a federal study that showed no Agent Orange threat to Gagetown veterans also merits a closer look.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control report was based solely on a review of 2007 Canadian government research. After the CDC study was released in March, Sen. Susan Collins called for an independent review of potential health risks to those who served at Gagetown. The recent news only adds weight to her request.

The timeline in Paul Bailey's disability case is telling: In February, his claim for disability benefits was denied. In April, he appealed the decision. On Aug. 3, The Washington Post published an article mentioning the denial of his claim. On Monday -- two days after the Post story ran -- Bailey learned that the VA was granting him full disability benefits.

Whether this is a coincidence is beside the point: Desperately ill people shouldn't have to go to great lengths for care. And it shouldn't take national media exposure for the VA to do its job and do right by those who have done so much for us already.


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