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The VA's Claim Dodge

Beyond the awful conditions at Walter Reed hospital, something smells fishy in the government's handling of veterans' claims. One appalling case study suggests what might be happening and why.

by Deb Derrick

The two signature injuries of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An estimated 26,000 U.S. veterans from these wars have had their brains traumatized from nearby explosions. Another 45,000 have initiated post traumatic stress disorder claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

These claims concern real disabilities that are medically hard to prove. In each VA case, it is up to the military and the Department of Veterans' Affairs to decide if and how much any given soldier's mental faculties have been impaired. These are also precisely the kinds of claims that the U.S. government has actively thwarted in the past -- and recent news and health articles suggest that a repeat performance is underway. The Defense Department is being accused of under-funding studies of traumatic brain injuries. The VA and Defense Departments are refusing to make their brain injury data public. Current PTSD claimants are finding their medical and service records missing, lost, or subject to challenge. A class action lawsuit was recently initiated on behalf of PTSD claimants.

My recent investigation on the VA claims of a Navy waste disposal ship, the USS Calhoun County, provides a cautionary tale about what might be happening and why.

Harvey Ray Lucas served in the late 1950s on the USS Calhoun County, a low-ranking Navy ship whose primary mission was to dump atomic and other military waste into the Atlantic Ocean. Lucas spent four years heaving radioactive materials over the side of the ship. After leaving the military, he suffered from chronic health problems and sired five children with birth defects. Lucas's testimony made my jaw drop. He described one baby whose skin oozed "bloodwater." He described the birth and death of another whom physicians termed an "anencephalic female monster." A couple years after his testimony, Lucas died of a rare cancer associated with radiation exposure.

I came across Lucas's story in 1998, when I worked in a U.S. Congressional office and read the transcript of his Board of Veterans Appeals hearing. Lucas's widow, Barbara, and my boss, Congressman David Skaggs (D-Colo.), both felt that Harvey Lucas and his family's illnesses stemmed from radiation exposure in the Navy. But Barbara Lucas had been pursuing a compensation claim with the VA for 18 years without success. The VA always seemed to need more or different evidence. When our office dug up a key final document and Barbara prevailed, I decided to write a book about the USS Calhoun County and her VA claim.

Deck logs and interviews with the ship's sailors, officers, and scientists suggested that the USS Calhoun County had carried excessively radioactive material and that the ship's decks had been contaminated. When I discovered a number of other sailors had experienced odd health problems, I broadened my inquiry to look at the VA cases of other USS Calhoun County veterans.

I interviewed Deane Horne, whose teeth and hair had fallen out after he left the ship and whose eldest son was born without a femur. I interviewed Richard Tkaczyk, who had also lost his teeth and whose first born son had seizures and brain damage. I interviewed George Albernaz, who was half paralyzed after suffering from an odd brain disease that his physician called radiation necrosis. All had filed claims with the VA. None had made any headway.

In all cases, the VA began the claims process by asserting that there was no proof that the USS Calhoun County had even carried atomic waste -- even though there was ample evidence of the ship's mission in public federal archives. In all cases, the Navy forwarded personnel files to the VA that were missing a key radiation exposure document.

The treatment of these men's claims echoed what had happened with the Lucas claim. It was also entirely consistent with a vastly discouraging history of the VA's handling of hard-to-prove claims, including radiation, asbestos, Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, and PTSD-based injuries. All such cases were and are handled centrally out of a special office in VA headquarters. All required Congressional or court intervention to force the VA to grant claims.

In the case of radiation-based claims, the military was found omitting incriminating documents from veterans' databases; veterans' documents were destroyed in a huge and mysterious fire at a military personnel records facility; the VA was found hiding and shredding more veterans' evidence; and whistleblowers were subjected to death threats and workplace retaliation.

As I unearthed this information, I was drawn into providing evidence for the claims of several USS Calhoun County veterans. In particular, I began helping George Albernaz, who had served with Lucas on the ship between 1957 and 1958.

To verify his claim, I sent the VA data on the ship's atomic loads, noting that my information came from deck logs in the National Archives. The VA called my information unsubstantiated. I sent Navy documentation on them. The Navy and the VA said that they still had no proof that Albernaz himself had ever been exposed to radiation. I sent information from the Lucas claim that challenged such "zero dose" exposure estimates. It was deemed irrelevant.

Looking for more evidence on Albernaz's behalf, I dug deeper in the ship's administrative archives. I came across a memo to the ship's Commanding Officer from 1956, indicating that the deck of the USS Calhoun County had become radiologically contaminated. I found another from 1958 stating that all attempts to remove the contamination had failed. But my breath failed me when I read a final memo from 1962, stating that the Navy had never, in its history, been able to render such a ship safe for use and recommending that the USS Calhoun County be sunk.

If I thought that such evidence would help win the Albernaz case, however, I was quite mistaken. Albernaz and I submitted the incriminating documents between 2005 and 2007. Yet the VA omitted the documents from the "evidence of record;" the Navy re-asserted that they had no proof of Albernaz's exposure but that he'd likely only received safe doses; and the VA continued to take the Navy at its word. As of this month, the VA was demanding a long list of additional evidence to support Albernaz's claim -- much of which he and I had already submitted.

The treatment of these sailors exposes a U.S. veterans' claims adjudication system that enshrines military-produced evidence as the only "objective" arbiter of claims, even when there is ample reason to doubt it. Evidence -- even documents from the National Archives -- produced by the likes of Harvey Lucas and George Albernaz is viewed and treated as potentially fraudulent. And far from making any attempt to validate or verify claims through databases, "buddy statements," or consolidated claims reviews, the VA actively dismisses their compatriots' evidence as "irrelevant" to their claims. In sum, the veterans are treated as liars, told to prove their own cases to the government, and subject to having credible evidence dismissed when it contradicts military assertions.

Americans are now becoming increasingly concerned with the treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, and they ought to be. Because unless the U.S. revamps its veterans claims system to allow for decisions made independently of the U.S. military, we are headed for another series of large VA scandals.

Deb Derrick is a U.S. governmental affairs specialist who is writing "Exposed," a book on the USS Calhoun County and the betrayal of its veterans. She currently serves as executive director of the Better World Campaign, a group that lobbies for the United Nations in Washington, D.C.

© 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.

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