The Dreaded Veteran’s Administration
By: Garland Davis
The question arose during a conversation, this morning, with a couple of shipmates on FaceBook about where one should go for advice when dealing with the Social Security Administration, Tricare, Tricare for Life, and the Veterans Administration. This is my story of a four-year ordeal with the VA endeavoring to gain a presumption of exposure to Agent Orange as a cause for my Parkinson’s disease.
In 2008 and 2009, I was still running three to six miles per day. I began to notice some changes in my motion as I ran. My right arm seemed to want to hang and not move naturally, my right leg seemed heavier and took more of an effort to move forward. I just figured these were caused by age and muscle weakness and increased the intensity of my workouts at the fitness center. From time to time, I would notice a slight trembling in the fingers of my right hand. I didn’t know why but it was easy to control.
One evening in 2010, I was drinking beer with my Bubblehead friend who lives a few houses from me. This was pretty much our normal Friday evening routine. I pointed out the tremble in my fingers and said, “Look at this shit.” He asked if I had ever been tested for Parkinson’s disease. He had seen it before. His father had suffered from PD.
At the time, all I knew of the disease was that Michael J Fox and Muhammad Ali had it and that Hitler had had it. My wife was in Japan visiting her family and I spent most of the next day on the computer researching Parkinson’s disease. I learned that Dr. Parkinson had originally described the disease as a rare malady of the aged in 1814. At the time, the life expectancy was about forty-two years. The dramatic increase in the numbers of Parkinson’s patients since stems from elevated life expectancies. Fox has a rarer Early Onset Parkinson’s and Ali’s affliction was caused my multiple head trauma.
The more I read of the condition and the symptoms, the more convinced I became that I had the disease. I made an appointment with my doctor. He knows that if I think there is a problem, I will do the research before I come to him. When I told him I thought I may have PD and the reasons why, he explained that there were no definitive tests for PD. The procedure is to perform tests to rule out other causes of the symptoms. He scheduled me for blood tests, x-rays, an MRI, and a CT scan. He also told me that he would prescribe a medication and if the trembling stopped when I took it, there was a ninety percent surety that it was PD. The medicine worked. The tests ruled out stroke, brain tumor, or palsy. It was official, I had Parkinson’s disease.
When I retired, I was never screened by the VA for any disabilities. I was in good health and didn’t want to be classified as “Disabled.” My friend asked if I had served in Viet Nam. He told me that PD was on the list of afflictions attributed to Agent Orange. I told him that I had never served in-country, but had served in an Ocean Going Tug that operated in and out of the ports of Vung Tau, Da Nang, and Cam Ranh Bay. We had always anchored and never moored to a pier. Mooring to a pier automatically qualifies as a presumption that one was exposed to the chemical. The difference a few hundred yards can make!
He asked if I ever went ashore. I was ashore in Da Nang and Cam Ranh a number of times to arrange for stores. He urged me to apply to the VA for Agent Orange screening and Disability benefits. I basically told him that none of the ships I served in were on the register of ships presumed to be exposed during the periods I was aboard. I told him I would, but procrastinated for about six months.
I was at his house one evening, and he gave me the card of a gentleman involved with advocating VA claims. The fellow was an officer with the local VFW. I called and made an appointment to talk with him. The different VA advocates were all officed in the VA wing of Tripler Army Medical Center.
The VA advocate explained the VA policy of determining exposure and brought out a myriad of forms which he helped me to complete over the next couple of hours. He told me that I should order copies of ship’s logs, and get letters from as many previous shipmates as possible to support my claim.
The ship’s Commanding Officer, at the time I was in her, was retired and lived less than three miles from me. I called him and explained my problem. It turned out that he had kept a personal log of the ships’ movements. He provided me dates and times that the ship was in Vietnamese ports. Using that information, I ordered copies of ship’s logs. He also wrote a letter, which he sent directly to the VA, stating that he was the ship’s CO and could attest that CS1 Garland Davis had been ashore in Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay on numerous occasions on ship’s business.
The gentleman at the VA told me that it would take a considerable amount of time for my claim to be processed and to give it time. After waiting for over three months, I stopped by the VFW office to touch base. The fellow didn’t recognize me and had no idea of who I was or the particulars of my claim. From that minute on, I took complete control of my claim and no longer relied on any outside source to advocate for me. Don’t depend on someone else to represent you, do it yourself.
In due time, I was scheduled for three different doctor’s appointments. In the meantime, I had received copies of the ship’s logs. They were written in standard Navalese and were not helpful in proving my claim. None of them stated specifically that CS1 Garland Davis went ashore in any Vietnamese port.
After almost a year, I received the VA’s determination that I was not exposed to Agent Orange and awarded me a ten percent disability because of a gastric surgery I had while on active duty. They dismissed the CO’s letter and other letters as “Lay letters of no consequence.”
I had a period of time to appeal the decision and/or to submit additional evidence to bolster my claim. I submitted all the log copies in line with the old adage, “If you can’t dazzle them with facts, baffle them with bullshit.” I also received and submitted letters from other shipmates. I did this to keep the claim alive. As long as the claim can be kept active, the beginning date of any subsequent benefits is the date the original claim was submitted.
I had managed to keep my claim active for over three years when, in 2014, I learned that a Destroyer I had served in was added to the list of ships presumed to have been contaminated by Agent Orange. I went to my records and pulled copies of orders and other documents to prove that I was serving in her during the period stated and submitted them to augment my claim. Within a couple of weeks, I was scheduled for another round of doctor’s appointments. About a month afterward, I received notification that I was rated at eighty percent disability effective in August 2011.
A retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant acquaintance told me that since I was no longer capable of working, to file for Individual Un-employability which would automatically raise my disability to one hundred percent. Anyone with a VA rating of over seventy percent is eligible to file for this category.
I was awarded an eighty percent rating from August 2011 and a hundred percent from August 2012 when I was no longer able to pass the PUC physical that caused the loss of my CDL(taxi).
When dealing with the VA, DO NOT GIVE UP!