‘When I needed help, I didn’t get it’: VA word games added years to veteran’s wait for benefits

8 On Your Side

Attorney claims the VA created categories outside the law

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Thousands of American service members supported the Vietnam War effort from Guam.

Science shows herbicides sprayed on Guam cause the very medical conditions that are making veterans so sick.

Getting the Veteran Affairs to approve a Guam veteran’s claim for benefits is no easy task, especially when the government plays word games.

Joe McHale lived in Clearwater from 1995 to 2014. He watched 8 On Your Side reports online about the difficulties Guam veterans experienced in their struggles for VA benefits and wanted to share his.

It started in 1972, a time when the US stepped up its bombing campaign of North Vietnam. The Air Force happened to send Joe McHale to the Pacific island.

Joe McHale served 14 years in the Air Force, and lived in Clearwater 19 years.

Many of the B-52’s involved in those bombing runs were based in Guam.

“Basically what I did, I went from place to place, did interviews, on radio, TV and newspaper of the people who were serving over there to send back to hometown news,” Joe McHale recalls.

Shooting his video and photos, Joe says he had a tendency to lay in the grass and shoot upward.

In performing his job Joe McHale was soaked by toxic herbicides sprayed on Guam.

“I kept getting this oily stuff drenching my uniform,” he told 8 On Your Side.

That oily stuff was a herbicide mixed with fuel to kill vegetation.

“In 2006, I came down with lung cancer,” Joe said.

Lung cancer is one of many illnesses associated with exposure to the herbicide known as Agent Orange. In 2006, Joe filed a claim for disability and medical care with the VA, saying exposure to Agent Orange caused his lung cancer.

From there, things got a bit tricky.

“I was told they never had it (Agent Orange) on Guam, they never stored it, they never used it,” Joe remembered.

The VA initially denied his claims for benefits, saying the DOD did not use Agent Orange on Guam.

The VA denied his claim.

In 2015, doctors diagnosed Joe with Parkinson’s, another Agent Orange-related illness. He filed another claim, it too was denied. The VA told Joe the military never sprayed Agent Orange in Guam.

“VA regulations don’t say Agent Orange, they say herbicide agents,” Joe’s attorney Katrina Eagle explained.

Eagle, who is a certified veterans advocate and only represents veterans and their families, accuses the VA of playing word games.

“A lot of veterans, they would file claims for Agent Orange, and VA would say, ah-ha you weren’t exposed to Agent Orange, we didn’t use Agent Orange in Guam,” she said.

Veterans attorney Katrina Eagle calls the VA word games beyond disrespectful to Veterans.

According to Eagle, a new twist to the word games is the VA is now denying claims, informing veterans they were exposed to commercial, not tactical herbicides.

“Commercial versus tactical is a VA ploy essentially to keep veterans from being able to earn their benefits,” Eagle said. “They’re creating categories that are not in the law, they’re not in the regulation and that is beyond disrespectful to veterans at this point in their life when they’re fighting cancers and serious medical conditions.”

However, a 2018 report by the general accounting office states, “available records show that DOD (Department of Defense) stored and used commercial herbicides on Guam, possibly including those containing n-butyl, 2,4,5, T, during the 1960s and 1970s…”

Eagle also dug up EPA and other official government reports listing pages of contaminants in the soil and water in Guam, as well as medical experts who could link Joe’s illnesses to specific contaminants on those lists.

She presented all of that to the Board of Veterans Appeals. In April, the VA reversed its denials, approving Joe McHale’s claims and awarding him benefits.

“I went through lung cancer, I went through Parkinson’s Disease, I’m in level four of it so I’m in the end level. I don’t feel mad about it, I don’t feel like woe is me, because I did my job, I did what I was supposed to do,” said Joe. “What I felt bad about was, when I needed help, I didn’t get it.”

“For Mr. McHale, I’m always grateful that we can get the appeal granted while he’s still with us,” Eagle explained. “So that he can enjoy what he has earned and so that he gets the gratification that the US government does concede that, yes you are sick, and you are sick because of what you did for our country.”

If you know of something that you think should be investigated call our 8 On Your Side Helpline at 1-800-338-0808. You can also contact Steve Andrews at sandrews@wfla.com.

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