- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

I am writing on behalf of my husband, who served in the Army and went to Vietnam for one year during 1971-72. During his tour of duty, he was exposed to Agent Orange. Due to this exposure he is constantly itching and there are rashes and redness. He has tried all types of medications, but the problems still persist. When he contacted VA some time ago, they informed him that he must die before receiving any type of benefits. They then forwarded to him 10 or 11 pages of documents to complete. He is almost near retirement from the U.S. Postal Service. Is there any information that you can give us concerning Agent Orange and veterans of Vietnam. It seems like the Persian Gulf and Iraq war veterans are able to get benefits.

Thank you,

Sandra J

Dear Sandra J:

I regret the perceived attitude of a representative of the Department of Veterans Affairs that seemed to suggest there would be entitlement to benefits only after your husband died. That is quite incorrect.

Every veteran who “stepped foot” in Vietnam is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. Exposure qualifies Vietnam veterans for disability compensation when they manifest symptoms and disease that are attributable to Agent Orange.

I hope that those lengthy forms sent to your husband were claim forms to submit to the Veterans Benefits Administration to have his problems considered for service-connected benefits. The VA will most likely schedule a medical examination to evaluate the problems and to determine their relationship to military service.

The benefits and entitlements available to all veterans are determined on a case-by-case basis. Some benefits are very easy to determine; others are more complex.

I suggest you and others interested in additional information visit the VA Web site, www.va.gov, and look for the link to Agent Orange.

Shaft notes

The Sarge was moved by the recent ceremony to commemorate Mental Illness Awareness Week at the VA Medical Center in Washington. This is an important national observance that was established by presidential proclamation in January 1990 to focus attention on the high incidence of mental illness in America. Also addressing the audience were veterans describing their constant struggle to overcome the torment of mental illness.

These are excerpts from the keynote remarks by VA Deputy Secretary Gordon H. Mansfield:

“The observance encourages people with mental illness to seek treatment for mental health problems with the same urgency as they seek treatment for problems with their physical health.

“Mental illness is a challenge that millions of Americans face every day. Many of these illnesses are disabling.

“The U.S. Surgeon General’s report on mental health finds that about one in five Americans experience a mental disorder in the course of a year.

“Mental illness affects almost every American family. These illnesses can affect a person from any cultural, racial or ethnic background. And just as they affect the individual, they also affect our families and the communities in which we live.

“Following the presidential proclamation of 1990, the decade of the 1990s was designated the ‘Decade of the Brain.’ And during that decade, we expanded our understanding of how the brain works. Genetic discoveries have revealed that more than half of the human genome is composed of brain-related cells, and these genes influence a range of behaviors.

“New scanning technologies have enabled us to observe brain activity as it happens. So brain research is continually moving us closer to sound medical solutions for treating and living with severe mental illness.

“Despite these and other discoveries about the brain, we still have much to learn. And the need for continued research is compelling — millions of Americans are affected each year by disorders of the brain.

“We must constantly remind ourselves that the goal of this transformation in VA’s mental health care system is healing and recovery.

“We are now in the decade of recovery. In order to move forward with this transformation, we must never underestimate the potential of the human spirit … for healing and for renewal.

“For us to instill and impart hope to others, we must all of us in the health care system harbor and nurture that same hope.

“And when we do, we embrace a profound truth: that people can heal; that people can change.

“The narratives of recovery that you heard this morning from seven of our veterans are powerful testimonies of hope and renewal.

“It has been said before that hope has the power to sustain. And hope lays the groundwork for healing to begin.

“We are now in the decade of recovery. And recovery is all about healing.

“To meet the challenge of mental illness, we must defeat the stigma that is associated with it.

“Stigma isolates people, and discourages them from reaching out for the treatment that might bring them relief from mental illness.

“Stigma prevents many people from seeking help out of the fear that the confidentiality of their diagnosis or treatment will be compromised.

“The power of stigma is such that it often prevents people from acknowledging their own mental health conditions.

“Stigma takes many forms. It can appear as simple fear or distrust. Or it may manifest itself as prejudice and discrimination.

“Stigma can be stereotyping. It can be a few thoughtless comments that undo months or years of work.

“It also causes many people to avoid finding a job or having a social life.

“We must do all that we can to ensure that each and every VA employee understands what mental illness is.”

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, PO Box 65900, Washington, D.C., 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330; call 202/257-5446; or e-mail sgtshaft@bavf.org.

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