Personal Health

Echoes of Vietnam: VA Stalls, Dissembles While Vets Suffer and Die

The latest episode of the Department of Veterans Affairs' callous denial of veterans' suffering is a continuation of a long tradition.
On June 10, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs back into court. Conti is presiding over a lawsuit brought by veterans against the VA, charging the agency with systematically denying veterans the services and support they so desperately need. Conti demanded that the VA explain why it had failed to produce certain critical (and incriminating) documents.

Among those documents was an e-mail written by the now-infamous Norma Perez. It read: "Given that we have more and more compensation-seeking veterans, I'd like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out. Consider a diagnosis of adjustment disorder, R/O [ruling out] PTSD."

Bob Filner, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said it was inconceivable that a low-level staffer like Perez could have written such an e-mail on her own authority. Barack Obama called it "unacceptable" and "tantamount to fraud." John McCain called it "not too important."

Lost somehow in the high-decibel rhetoric of the moment is a historical dimension of this story that I think deserves some attention. This is not the first time the VA has acted as adversary rather than advocate. Thirty years ago, almost to the day, Max Cleland, then head of the VA, circulated an equally directive memo to his staff that read:
In view of the remaining uncertainties on the long-term effects of the defoliants, all VA personnel should avoid premature commitment to any diagnosis of defoliant poisoning. Similarly, entries in medical records should not contain statements about the relationship between a veteran's illnesses and defoliant exposure unless unequivocal confirmation of such a connection has been established.
(The defoliants Cleland refers to were Agent Orange and other dioxin-based chemicals the United States sprayed over Vietnam.)

In the meantime, Cleland instructed VA staff to deny all Agent Orange claims. He also refused to undertake any kind of epidemiological study because, he claimed, the necessary outreach to veterans would only cause them "needless anxiety."

Then, as now, veterans' "anxiety" was a hot topic at the VA. In testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in February 1980, Cleland justified the agency's practice of first, and often exclusively, giving veterans with dioxin-related symptoms psychiatric exams. Obviously, he explained to the committee, if "in FY 1979, 46 percent (of veterans) had received care for psychiatric disorders," that proved, ipso facto, that psychiatric care was what they needed. They were suffering from "post-Vietnam syndrome." All their symptoms were in their heads. Veterans tried to sue the VA over its "no health effects" policy, but the agency took the rather astonishing position that veterans had "no standing" to challenge the policies. They were allowed to sue the chemical manufacturers, but not the U.S. government, the entity that bought the poison and ordered it spread -- in concentrations four times that recommended for civilian use and with total disregard for the health and safety of its own soldiers and Vietnamese citizens. Veterans' lawyers suggested that the VA's position would lead "to a government of men, not law."

A prescient observation.

In a manner usually associated with totalitarian regimes, veterans were called "crazy" and thus dismissed, stigmatized and silenced. Paul Reutershan, who courageously initiated the class-action lawsuit against the chemical companies in 1978, told a television audience at the time, "My government killed me in Vietnam, and I didn't even know it." Five months later, Reutershan was permanently silenced when he died of his illnesses. The longer the VA stalled, the more veterans died.

Reutershan was not, however, the original whistleblower. In 1977, Maude DeVictor, a VA caseworker in Chicago, began to notice a pattern of unusual birth defects in Vietnam veterans' children. She began to keep a log of these cases, at least initially with her supervisors' permission, accumulating a devastating, if circumstantial, body of evidence suggesting a strong link to dioxin poisoning. Suddenly, without explanation, her boss ordered her to stop. DeVictor decided to go to the media. On March 23, 1978, WBBM, the CBS television affiliate in Chicago, aired an hourlong documentary on the health effects of Agent Orange, including interviews with veterans and scientists. DeVictor was fired from her job and banned from full-time government work.

Which brings us back to today.

Veterans for Common Sense, one of the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit, called Judge Conti's recent ruling "an important victory for veterans." And I suppose that it might be, if the VA can be forced to start doing its job. After seven years of preposterous, viciously cruel and far-too-often lethal gamesmanship, it would feel good to see the bad guys slapped around -- even just a little bit. And the fallout from such a court order, if one could be made binding, would certainly ease the betrayal and perhaps even the suffering of veterans. It might also help convince Americans that our big-stick militarism is a far more expensive solution to our international problems than they have been led to believe.

But what has really changed?

I find it deeply ironic that the very physical effects of dioxin were once dismissed as merely psychological, not compensable service-connected injuries. With the inclusion of posttraumatic stress disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, such psychic injuries are acknowledged, yet the VA is still using the same tools of denial and obfuscation to refuse treatment to injured vets. The agency has proven itself over time to be far more committed to protecting the bottom line for "a government of men" than to protecting its rightful charges. Perhaps if the agency were no longer the fiefdom of political appointees, its policies would not be so predictably callous and politically expedient.

And where are the Maude DeVictors in this generation's VA? How is it that policies are set and directives come down from above, stinking of injustice, and yet a staff that, at least in my experience, is largely made up of honorable, compassionate professionals carries them out without protest? Since this generation of soldiers began coming home, psychically injured in numbers never seen (or acknowledged?) before, a steadily increasing number of reports accuses the agency of everything from indifference to gross medical malfeasance. That's corporate for "murder." The VA may be tantamount to a corporation, but those who individually carry out those policies and directives have also chosen. Like Maude DeVictor, they could have said no.

On the entrance to the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs is a metal plaque that bears these words, taken from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan."

That plaque is an affront and an offense to those who have been so heartlessly treated, and someone should order it taken down. Or, maybe it's time to take matters into our own hands. Maybe, to paraphrase Abbie Hoffman, it's time to steal this plaque.
Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day 2006. Her website is Flashback.
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