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Central TX Woman Fighting VA, Insists Agent Orange Exposure is Real

Updated: Thursday, June 26 2014, 11:37 AM CDT

Many have criticized the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as an overwhelmed, unorganized system offering care.

The VA is coming under fire again, this time from a Central Texas woman.

This Central Texas woman says her survivor benefits have been denied, even though her husband's shipmates insist his exposure to Agent Orange is real.

"He wasn't just a good sailor; he was an excellent husband," said Diane Zweig.

Diane Zwieg met her blue-eyed Navy man in 1980.

"He was the light of my life, I tell you that," Zweig said.

Those baby blues enchanted her to the end, when cancer attacked Ted Zweig.

"It had exploded through his whole body," she said.

Diane says Ted got regular checkups at the VA, but no one noticed anything until he complained about his vision. She says an emergency room doctor spotted the cancer during an MRI. Ted started treatment, while he waited for a VA appointment. She says only when she stepped up her complaints about a dying husband did they make room for him.

"They said how about October 27, and that was about a week and a half away," said Zweig. "I said, 'OK, we'll take it,' and dwell he died on the 26."

Ted Zweig died October 26, 2013, of lung cancer that had metastasized, one day before his VA appointment.

When Dianne applied for survivor benefits, she was denied.

"The Texas Veteran Commission counselors asked what type of cancer he died from, and they asked to see the death certificate," said Zweig. "They said this type of cancer is the type of cancer that's from Agent Orange."

Millions of gallons of the herbicide were sprayed by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War -- Ted's war.

The chemicals used to destroy forests and crops are linked to serious and deadly health effects.

"It's considered molecule by molecule very toxic, one of the most toxic man-made chemicals," said Dr. Arnold Schecter with the University of Texas School of Public Health.

Schecter is one of the world's leading experts on Agent Orange.

He describes it as an oily chemical that can stay in the body for decades and remain hidden for years after being exposed.

"The dioxins can cause cancer or accelerate cancer once it's formed," said Schecter. "It can cause health problems with the reproductive system, endocrine system, brain (and) nervous system."

On its website, the VA has a list of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships associated with military service in Vietnam and possible exposure to Agent Orange.

Ted served on the USS Kansas City, which was off the coast of Vietnam in 1971.

But Ted's ship is not on the VA's public list -- at least not now.

Diane uncovered a document released January 6, 2011. It's another list of Navy and Coast Guard Ships associated with service in Vietnam and exposure to herbicide agents. In that document, the USS Kansas City is listed.

KEYE TV also found the USS Kansas City in a VA benefits 2011 training guide, listing the ship eligible for the presumption of Agent Orange.

"When I saw that I exploded inside, and said, 'This is an atrocity,'" said Zweig.

KEYE TV took the documents to the VA for an explanation.

In an email response the VA said, "The original entry of the USS Kansas City on the ships list was based on the 1971 Command History, which refers to visiting the port of Da Nang on August 6 and 19, 1971. Since this was an oiler that was taking on fuel to deliver to other ships, the VA assumed it was docked at the harbor and attached to a fuel line to accomplish this mission. Regarding its subsequent removal from the ships list, VA received evidence from JSSRC showing that the deck logs did not document an oiler going ashore while the ship was anchored in Da Nang Harbor on the dates the Veteran claimed. Upon further review of this evidence, it showed that the ship offloaded stores and material only. VA did not initially have this evidence when it was originally added to the ships list. As a result, the ship was taken off the ships list under the category of ships that sent some crew members ashore while at anchorage."

But evidence uncovered by KEYE TV from Ted's shipmates contradicts the VA's decision.

A photo sent to KEYE TV shows a crane shipmates say was used to remove and receive large items on the ship.

In another instance, one crew member said in part: "We did go into one port toward the end of our tour and picked up a large tractor, like a bulldozer. A big crane set it on our helicopter pad for transport back to Subic Bay. The tracks were full of dirt and the area we serviced was known by the VA to have been a heavily sprayed area. Touching the dirt in the tracks of that tractor was what helped me get VA benefits when I applied. The VA thought by doing so had exposed me to Agent Orange. Because we hauled that tractor, that should have changed our status. I wasn't the only one admiring the tractor. Several were there, including Ted."

Another shipmate told KEYE TV they ate food from Vietnam. He says food was brought on the ship straight from areas soaked with Agent Orange.

KEYE TV went back to the VA and asked if anyone who served on the USS Kansas City had been approved for benefits of an Agent-Orange-related disability claim.

A VA representative responded that they don't have a searching mechanism to search ship by ship and whether or not someone was service connected. In other words, they could not answer the question.

But several veterans who served with Ted could.

Scared the VA will try to take their benefits away the men wouldn't go on camera, but said yes, they have been service connected for Agent Orange.

"We need to know the list of ships that were there," said Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) is backing federal legislation that includes a bill written by New York Rep. Chris Gibson. The provision would require a comprehensive search to determine which ships are eligible for coverage under current law, reducing the wait time when new claims are filed.

Under current law, Blue Water Navy Veterans who did not set foot in Vietnam or serve aboard ships that operated on the inland waterways of Vietnam have the burden of proof to demonstrate exposure to Agent Orange.

And Ted's chance for undeniable proof came one day too late.

"He thought he was one of the safe ones (who) actually made it out alive. Guess what? He's not," said Zweig.

If approved, the legislation will make sure there are no ships, like the USS Kansas City, missing from the VA's list.

"I'm certainly concerned that there may be," Doggett said. "That's why I'm supporting the bill, as I want to be sure we know that we hear from anyone who thinks they might be in that situation and we see that they get justice."

Shipmates say more than 300 people served on the USS Kansas City at that time.

The VA says if the veterans have evidence that proves different information than their records they'll always examine it.

More Information about the VA's Navy and Coast Guard Ships Associated with Service in Vietnam and Exposure to Herbicide Agents:

This ships list is intended to provide VA regional offices with a resource for determining whether a particular US Navy or Coast Guard Veteran of the Vietnam era is eligible for the presumption of Agent Orange herbicide exposure based on operations of the Veteran's ship. According to 38 CFR SS 3.307(a)(6)(iii), the presumption of herbicide exposure requires that the Veteran's service involved "duty or visitation in the Republic of Vietnam." For those Veterans who served aboard ships operating primarily or temporarily on the inland waterways of Vietnam, their service involved "duty" in Vietnam. In such cases, the evidence must show that the ship was on the inland waterways and the Veteran was aboard at that time. For those Veterans who served aboard ships that docked and the Veteran went ashore, or served aboard ships that did not dock but the Veteran went ashore, their service involved "visitation" in Vietnam. In cases involving docking, the evidence must show that the Veteran was aboard at the time of docking and the Veteran must provide a statement of personally going ashore. In cases where shore docking did not occur, the evidence must show that the ship operated in Vietnam's close coastal waters for extended periods, that members of the crew went ashore, or that smaller vessels from the ship went ashore regularly with supplies or personnel. In these cases, the Veteran must also provide a statement of personally going ashore. This list includes three categories of ships:

- Ships operating primarily or exclusively on Vietnam's inland waterways

- Ships operating temporarily on Vietnam's inland waterways or docking to the shore

- Ships operating on Vietnam's close coastal waters for extended periods with evidence that crew members went ashore or that smaller vessels from the ship went ashore regularly with supplies or personnel

VA's policies related to Blue Water Navy Veterans are based on the laws currently in effect. VA defines "Blue Water" Veterans as those who served between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 on ships that operated primarily on the offshore open waters of Vietnam. The presumption of Agent Orange (AO) exposure was established by Congress, under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, for Veterans with "service" in Vietnam. VA has interpreted this to mean "duty or visitation" within the country of Vietnam or on its inland waterways. This interpretation is based on the facts of widespread aerial spraying of tactical herbicides (including AO) over the land mass of Vietnam to destroy enemy food crops and reveal enemy jungle positions. No such spraying, or other use, occurred over the offshore waters of Vietnam. The presumption is based on the potential for exposure among those serving in the environment where AO use actually occurred. Since AO use did not occur off the coast and over open waters, Veterans whose sole service was aboard ships on those open waters do not qualify for the presumption of exposure. This interpretation was upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Hass v. Peake (2008). However, if VA obtains evidence that a Blue Water Navy Veteran was aboard a ship that temporarily entered the inland "brown water" waterways or went ashore from the ship, then AO exposure will be presumed.

By Adam Racusin

Central TX Woman Fighting VA, Insists Agent Orange Exposure is Real

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