Monday, January 19, 2015

A vet's long and winding road
On a gray January afternoon, Vietnam-era veteran Peter Sajta lay on a hospital bed inside a dark bedroom of his family's home near Amsterdam. His wife, JoAnn, gently helped him up and guided him on a slow journey to their dining room table.
"I've been through hell," Peter Sajta mumbled to a visitor.
Gruff and sensitive, Sajta grew up fixing race cars at his uncle's junkyard in Montgomery County. He graduated from Amsterdam High School in 1964 and, four days later, joined the Navy.
Sajta's slender 125-pound frame allowed him to fit into tight spaces where most others couldn't. While assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines in April 1967, it was Sajta's duty to crawl into Air Force bombers to repair fuel bladders that carried Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the military that was later found to contain dioxin, a toxic chemical contaminant known to cause cancer, damage the immune system and disrupt hormones. Sajta worked days in the steamy "ribs" of C-130s, replacing the holders without protective gear in more than 100-degree heat.
"The tanks I worked on ruptured so all the metal frame parts got wet with Agent Orange," Sajta said. "We had to pull the old bladder out, clean every speck of metal with paper towels. Our uniforms would soak up Agent Orange and you'd be laying in it for hours. The sweat would be unbelievable."
Sajta was honorably discharged in October 1967. More than 50 years after he joined the military, the Navy veteran is disabled with skin cancer and diabetes, while locked in a battle with the government he once served. Sajta wants to spend his final years in the home he and JoAnn bought from his aunt in 1990. For nine years, he's appealed to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for disability benefits because of illnesses attributed to exposure to Agent Orange. A higher disability rating would make Sajta eligible for greater financial assistance, but also other less-known federal benefits, such as access to grants to remodel his 55-year-old home.
Sajta hasn't taken a bath in his home since 2013 because he can no longer get in and out of the tub. Instead, a health aide washes him with a sponge in his bed. The couple want to replace the family's tub with a walk-in bath or shower and move their washer and dryer upstairs from their basement so they can access them.

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