- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

My husband was in the Army stationed in Japan during the Vietnam War. Just like many, many soldiers receiving their immunizations from immunization guns, he was immunized with hepatitis C, which was passed from the immunization gun to each soldier.

He also spoke of the unsafe practices in the military hospital he worked in. He was a phlebotomist, and he talked about the soldiers that were drafted that were obvious drug addicts. These guys would come to a blood drive to get a couple days leave in exchange for blood. Mike would see the “tracks” up and down their arms. He was told to draw their blood and not to worry about the signs of drug use.

This blood was another path that hepatitis C was passed to injured soldiers coming to the hospital in Japan and needing blood transfusions. For all he knows, he could have picked up hepatitis C from handling this blood.

My husband found out nine years ago that he had hepatitis C when he was close to liver failure. He had a liver transplant, but struggled after the transplant because the hepatitis could not be killed or controlled. He died last year due to complications associated with hepatitis C.

I want to know why the military did not send out information to all Vietnam-era veterans asking them to get checked for hepatitis C. The military obviously had all those soldiers’ Social Security numbers, and a check with the IRS would have given them current addresses for notification purposes. Had my husband known that he had hepatitis C much earlier, he would have lived his life more carefully. For example, he would have avoided all alcohol and would have gone to a hepatitis specialist to start Interferon before he was at liver failure.

I’m convinced that the military acted irresponsibly as they were warned about the possibility of passing blood-borne disease by using the immunization guns. They were irresponsible in the manner that they ran their hospital in Japan. My husband told me for years that he never felt well from the time he left Japan and now we know the reason was hepatitis C. Now my husband is gone and as far as I know, the military is not taking responsibility for passing hepatitis C to their Vietnam-era soldiers.

Has any widow of a Vietnam-era veteran been granted any benefits if their soldier husband was killed by their irresponsibility in passing a deadly disease like hepatitis C?

Debbie S.
Via the Internet

Dear Debbie:

You may want to check the portion of the VA web site that is dedicated to hepatitis C: https://www.hepatitis.va.gov/patient/index.asp. You didn’t mention if your husband had ever applied for VA compensation or sought health care due to his condition

Although some people believe that immunization guns were a factor in the spreading of hepatitis C, there is no convincing evidence that I know of that indicates that supports this premise.

If you believe that your husband’s death was caused by his military service, then you should apply for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) through the VA, with the assistance of a VSO representative. If there is no documentation that your husband’s condition and eventual death was caused by his service, you will face a difficult challenge.

Decisions such as this are based on the medical evidence of record. Basically what you would need to prevail in this type of case is an opinion from a physician, which after a thorough review of your husband’s records, could proffer an opinion that your husband’s death was as likely as not caused or hastened by his military service. This opinion would have to include an appropriate medical rationale. In other words, it would not be sufficient to say that that he or she believed this be the case without providing a supportable medical rationale.

Hepatitis C is disease that is known to be dormant and asymptomatic for many years, and a key element in these medical opinions has to include an analysis of risk factors in the etiology of the disease.

Shaft notes

My friends at the Fleet Reserve Association (FRA) are urging all Vietnam veterans to review the latest updates to a list of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard (USCG) vessels that were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam era. The list, maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), is of particular interest to those former service members experiencing health problems related to herbicide exposure, as it may help expedite their claims for VA health and disability benefits.

The list, which is available at www.fra.org/agentorange, was recently updated to include more vessels that operated primarily or exclusively on Vietnam’s inland waterways; ships that temporarily operated in these inland waterways or docked to the shore; and ships that operated in Vietnam’s close coastal waters for extended periods with evidence that crew members went ashore.

If a veteran’s service aboard one of these ships can be confirmed through his military records during the specified time frames, exposure to herbicides can be presumed and service-related benefits may be available for Agent Orange-related ailments.

If you or someone you know served aboard any of these vessels during the times indicated, a VA claim for exposure to an herbicide agent should be filed as soon as possible. To start a claim, contact your nearest VA Regional Office or contact Chris Slawinski, FRA’s national veterans service officer, at [email protected] or 1-800-FRA-1924 (Ext. 115). Veterans should understand that the list is not complete and presumption of exposure will not be denied solely because a veteran’s ship is not on it.

“The VA restricts this type of presumptive service connection to vets who had ‘boots on the ground’ or can prove their ship operated on inland waterways. Each addition to the VA’s list of exposed vessels will make it easier for these veterans to prove exposure and will hopefully facilitate more timely determination of benefits.”

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, P.O. Box 65900, Washington, D.C. 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330, call 202/257-5446 or email [email protected].

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