Retired Senior Master Sgt. Leslie Howe has battled two cancers --
non-Hodgkin lymphoma and prostate cancer, both of which have been linked with exposure to Agent Orange,
the herbicide used by the U.S. military to destroy enemy cover and
crops during the Vietnam War. Howe, 71, was never actually in Vietnam
during the conflict, but in the 1980s he served aboard Air Force planes
that contained trace amounts of the defoliant.
Still, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs twice denied Howe's
benefits claim, telling him in a letter that it "could not find a link"
between his medical conditions and his military service.
in good conscience on that aircraft, not knowing the danger," said Howe,
who recalled a distinct "aroma" at times while he worked in the
aircraft as an air medical evacuation technician. "I did it because I
wanted to serve my country."
Similarly, retired Master Sgt. Casimir Cerniauskas, a World War II
refugee from Lithuania, never hesitated in his decision to serve his
adoptive country. He spent 37 years in the U.S. Air Force, including
years loading and unloading cargo from contaminated C-123 airplanes --
the craft used to deploy Agent Orange
in Vietnam -- in the U.S. after the Vietnam War had ended. Today, he's
undergoing chemotherapy for myelodysplasia, a type of blood cancer,
after already fighting non-Hodgkin lymphoma and being told that he
couldn't qualify for the same Agent Orange-related benefits granted to
veterans who served in Vietnam, where they were assumed to have
encountered the herbicide.
"I don't regret serving," said
Cerniauskas, whose three sons have all graduated from West Point and
been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. "But how they make veterans wait,
it makes me sick. They are dying. It's not right."
Cerniauskas both said they will be refiling their claims, now with
renewed hope after what they say was a long-overdue policy change
announced by the VA in June.
The limits and lags in medical care and disability benefits for veterans are well established. Look no further than a federal lawsuit
filed in April by combat-injured veterans forced to wait up to two
years or more for required records from the VA before they could apply
for benefits. Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show,"
has repeatedly called out the agency for its red tape and backlogs of claims. As The Huffington Post recently reported, nearly one-third of the 847,000 veterans with pending applications for health care through the VA have already died.