Agent Orange's lethal legacy: For Vietnam War veterans, injustice follows injury
Vietnam vets wait years and fight skeptical agency to get disability
A U.S. Army soldier presents a folded U.S. flag to Christina Cooley at the memorial service in Evanston's Sheil Chapel for her father, Jack Cooley. Exposed to Agent Orange during his service in Vietnam, he died in July of multiple myeloma. At right is Christina's brother, John. (Tribune photo by Chris Walker / September 12, 2009)
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Jack Cooley delivered his final argument in a long, distinguished legal career from a hospital bed.
Four months before succumbing to multiple myeloma, the Chicago-area Vietnam veteran and federal magistrate judge wrote a 140-page claim for justice and filed it with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Cooley's message to the government was personal and direct: Agent Orange is killing me, and you need to take responsibility.
Cooley didn't know it last spring, but when the former Army artillery captain filed his disability claim, he was just entering a maddening bureaucratic maze many veterans know well. The VA would kick back Cooley's claim after a month, saying he lacked the required proof he'd served in Vietnam.
Cooley could have spent months navigating this convoluted path. But with Cooley's life fading, his family reached out to an old friend, a member of his West Point class of 1965. It was former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, recently appointed secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In short order the obstacles to Cooley's claim disappeared. The VA delivered three monthly disability checks for $2,700 before Cooley died July 21, at 65, in Evanston.
"This was insult to injury," said his daughter Christina. "If Gen. Shinseki was not ... a family friend and a West Point classmate, we would have never seen a dime. It makes me think about everybody else out there struggling without resources."
The Vietnam War ended almost 35 years ago, but for many veterans, battles with cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other maladies associated with defoliants used in the war are only now beginning. Until 2007, Jack Cooley had been in good health.
For many veterans, this is the unexpected new war, long after the old one ended.
The government has been slow to recognize the connection between wartime service and debilitating diseases that strike Vietnam veterans decades later. Even when they suffer from conditions officially linked to Agent Orange, veterans can wait years for their requests for disability compensation to run through the VA system.
Jack Cooley's death from multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer associated with exposure to Agent Orange, opens a window into the clogged workings of the VA, the final arbiter on war-related disability claims.
"The truth is, veterans who went to Vietnam returned much sicker than their (civilian) peers. Something happened over there. Why arm wrestle over it?" said Linda Schwartz, commissioner of veterans affairs in Connecticut and the author of early studies on the health of female veterans.
The VA declined requests to interview Shinseki, who has said he wants to change the culture at the agency and make it more of an advocate for those who serve the country.
As long-dormant effects of Agent Orange begin to surface in many Vietnam War veterans, the backlog of disability claims has been growing fast, despite the VA's adding more than 3,000 employees to handle the traffic jam.
"They're overwhelmed," said Joe Moore, a former VA attorney who now represents veterans in cases against the agency. "They simply can't do the decision-making fast enough."
In response to a December 2008 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington seeking to force the VA to decide claims in 90 days, the government acknowledged that "certain diseases for Vietnam-era veterans" are contributing to the backup.
The lawsuit, filed by the Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Modern Warfare, argues that "thousands of veterans die each year" before the VA acts on their disability claims. The lawsuit alleges the VA takes at least six months to consider an initial request, and appeals can drag on for years.
"In the face of such delays, many veterans simply give up, choosing to accept less than they deserve rather than to endure years of delay and frustration," it said.
Or they just die early. According to data from the VA, 58 percent of the 490,135 Vietnam veterans who died from 2000 to 2007 were younger than 60.