Minnesota veterans relieved as VA recognizes Agent Orange link

Steve Fiscus
Steve Fiscus shares a laugh with Rich Northway, left, and other friends from high school during a lunch at the American Legion in Golden Valley Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009. After years of work, Fiscus is relieved and excited to have the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs acknowledge the link between exposure to Agent Orange and Parkinson's.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

New research has led the Department of Veterans Affairs to change its policy on Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant widely using during the Vietnam War which is linked to illnesses in Vietnam veterans.

The VA will now allow thousands of veterans to connect their illnesses to their Agent Orange exposure, making them eligible for more benefits.

Jim Graham remembers seeing the defoliating chemical Agent Orange in ditches near the air base where he worked on jet engines during the Vietnam War.

The military base at Da Nang -- where the chemical was mixed and stored -- later was considered one of Vietnam's most contaminated areas, and the dioxin in Agent Orange was linked to birth defects and other health problems in nearby communities.

Back in southeastern Minnesota, Graham is living with Parkinson's disease. He experiences tremors which cause his head to move back and forth. He has trouble swallowing, and he struggles with routine tasks like dressing himself and tying his shoes.

Graham and his wife, Terri, tried to get additional VA benefits, saying the Parkinson's was caused by Jim's exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

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Veteran and Agent Orange
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs now recognizes a correlation between exposure to Agent Orange and Parkinson's disease, other heart conditions and leukemia due to a study Steven Fiscus helped research and organize.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

But even when Jim's disease progressed so that Terri had to quit her job at an accounting firm to take care of her husband, the VA wouldn't budge. There wasn't enough evidence linking Agent Orange to Parkinson's, officials told them at the time.

New research has now led the VA to change its policy on Agent Orange, which will allow thousands of veterans to connect their illnesses with their military service and make them eligible for more benefits.

The change, announced last month, marks the end of a long battle veterans with Parkinson's disease have waged against the VA -- one that Graham hopes other veterans won't have to go through in the future.

"You shouldn't have to fight like we did to get somewhere," said Graham, of Dakota, who along with his wife worked with other Minnesota veterans to form a group called U.S. Military Veterans with Parkinson's.

The group started with a small number of Minnesota veterans. Over the years, it expanded to veterans across the country as interest grew in getting the VA to recognize a link between Parkinson's and Agent Orange.

Veterans and their families researched the disease and found it was diagnosed in farmers who had been exposed to herbicides. They also pointed to studies of twins, which showed a link between Parkinson's and environmental factors. Finally, the veterans got people to pay attention.

Steve Fiscus
Steve Fiscus, executive director of U.S. Military Veterans with Parkinson's, displays a stack of documents he accumulated since 2001 when he began work to help military veterans become eligible to receive benefits for the effects of being exposed to Agent Orange. The Rogers resident was exposed to Agent Orange during his tour of duty in Vietnam and now has Parkinson's.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"It took many, many calls and letters," said Steve Fiscus, a Minnesota veteran with Parkinson's and the group's executive director.

Fiscus would sometimes put in 18-hour days doing Internet research, holding conference calls and trying to persuade elected officials to give Vietnam veterans with Parkinson's better access to benefits. Fiscus is relieved those days are over.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment that goes beyond words," he said.

The change will have a big impact on veterans who for years have had to mostly fend for themselves, Fiscus said. For example, Fiscus is eligible for a 70 percent disability benefit from the VA for post-traumatic stress disorder and hearing loss. Under the new policy, he hopes that will increase to 100 percent.

"It's just going to change a lot of lives," said Fiscus, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2000. "It's a wicked disease."

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies published research this year that found evidence of a link between Agent Orange and Parkinson's.

The institute's research also led the VA to recognize ischemic heart disease and B cell leukemia as being related to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

A dozen other health conditions had already made many veterans automatically eligible for benefits for being exposed to the chemical, and the VA expects adding the three other diseases will make some 200,000 more veterans nationwide eligible.

Gary Nickel of Moorhead might qualify for benefits for both his Parkinson's and ischemic heart disease, his wife Terry said. Like Terri Graham, Terry Nickel had to quit her job to take care of her husband, and for many years the Nickels have had to deal with Gary's Parkinson's on their own.

"We've been denied every time," Terry Nickel said of their attempts to get benefits from the VA.

Gary Nickel was exposed to Agent Orange at the Bien Hoa air base, where he measured weight distribution for military planes. Occasionally he helped load drums of the chemical onto the planes that sprayed it on jungles to destroy enemy hiding places, Terry Nickel said.

Nickel's disease has affected his thinking, making him dependent on help from others, his wife said.

"At times it can be everything -- shaving him, giving him guidance for how to dress in the cold," she said. "[The doctors] just look at us and say, 'That's how it is.'"

While Vietnam veterans with Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease and B cell leukemia may begin making claims under the new policy, it could be at least several more months before the policy takes effect, said Rod Quade, director of veterans programs for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

Quade said whenever the VA makes a huge change like this, it takes some time to update the system.

Quade said veterans can contact their county veterans service officer or a regional VA office to file their claims, and he said he hopes the new policy will help people the VA has denied in the past.

"When individuals come to you for help and you are only able to go so far ... it is difficult," Quade said. "When we heard this news about the Parkinson's disease especially, and the heart disease right behind it, we were very happy. This was an opportunity for us to reach out to individuals and get veterans the entitlement to their compensation."

Even with the new entitlement, the struggles for veterans with Parkinson's will continue, as there is no cure for the disease. Terri Graham said she's already started looking into whether her family can go after the companies that made the chemical.

"This caused my husband to have a horrible disease. He'll eventually die from it. I'm going to fight for everything I can get for him," she said.