Monday, January 25, 2010

Officials just now recognizing Agent Orange exposures

Health » 'Veterans ... deserve timely decisions,' VA secretary says.
By Matthew D. LaPlante

The Salt Lake Tribune

Updated: 01/15/2010 02:45:14 PM MST

Click photo to enlargeVietnam veteran James Randazzo talks recently about... (Jim Urquhart / The Salt Lake Tribune)«123»Related
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Government waits for proof - sometimes for decades - before caring for sick veteransVets say toxic tests sickened them; government says prove itVets: Burn pits are killing usWhen he returned from Vietnam, James Randazzo figured himself fortunate.

"I came home alive," said the 60-year-old Utahn, whose service included more than two years north of Da Nang and demolition missions into North Vietnam. "That's plenty more than many others can say."

About a decade after returning home, Randazzo arrived at a Veterans Affairs hospital covered in pus-filled boils and red lesions. His skin was rusty orange. He itched all over.

"The people at the VA, they didn't even want to touch me," Randazzo said. "It was like they were afraid they would catch it."

No one could tell him what he had, or how he got it. Decades later, the condition still comes and goes -- and the Tooele resident still doesn't know why.

It took decades of research and political pressure before the federal government began recognizing certain medical conditions were related to Agent Orange exposure. Early this year, an order from Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will take effect, permitting Vietnam veterans with certain types of heart disease, leukemia and Parkinson's disease to access additional care and disability payments.

Over the past 40 years, according to VA records, about 86,000 veterans who suffered from these conditions were denied benefits. Some will now collect retroactive compensation. Many others have already died.

Randazzo's condition is still not on the list. And although he figures it's just a matter of time, he's angry.

"It's not like we all start suffering the moment that the government decides we are worthy of compensation. I've been living with this for 30 years," he said. "How long do veterans have to wait?"

Not even Shinseki can answer that question.

"Since my confirmation as secretary, I've often asked why, 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, we're still trying to determine the health consequences to our veterans who served in the combat theater," Shinseki said in an October statement. "Veterans who endure a host of health problems deserve timely decisions."

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