The Department of Veterans Affairs has an image problem. Recently the VA has been vilified because its backlog of cases has grown to mindboggling levels. By July 2013, more than 600,000 veterans had been waiting more than 125 days, some of them for more than two years, to get the help they needed.
And while it’s no news flash that bureaucratic gears grind slowly (a problem, in this case, exacerbated by long-outdated computer processing systems), Peter Sills says there’s a lesser-known reason for the backlog: decades’ worth of government refusal to do the right thing.
What’s worse, he adds, this line of long-suffering veterans is a shameful testament to the government’s unofficial policy on veteran woes: lie, deny, and cover up.
“The long waiting list is actually a good news/bad news kind of thing,” says Sills, author of Toxic War: The Story of Agent Orange (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-8265-1962-7, $39.95). “The good news is that after decades of stalling, the VA is finally granting benefits to Vietnam veterans suffering from ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and certain types of leukemia, on the grounds that their conditions may have been caused by exposure to military herbicides, such as Agent Orange. This means that hundreds of thousands of Vietnam vets have been added to the rolls and are finally getting the help they deserve.
“The bad news is what came before—and what that says about our government and military,” he adds. “For decades, the VA refused to acknowledge that anyone could have been harmed by military herbicides used during the Vietnam War. It willfully ignored any and all evidence of that harm and then conducted its own research to prove these chemicals were safe—research that was intentionally flawed and that is largely disregarded today.”
In Toxic War, Sills describes the production and use of Agent Orange and other American poisons used in Vietnam and how the VA and the military, with the help of other federal agencies (including the White House), denied that these chemicals were capable of causing harm.