When Ralph Bozella came home from Vietnam in 1972, he was happy he’d survived and was ready to get on with life. Because he had escaped any serious wounds in combat, he never gave a thought to disabilities.
Four decades later, his time in Vietnam is haunting his health.
But thanks to a little-known law, he is receiving thousands of dollars a month in disability pay and free health care for a common heart problem that he may have contracted when exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals used to kill vegetation and expose the enemy.
Nearly 2.6 million Americans served in Vietnam, and anyone who set foot there during the war is eligible for compensation if they suffer from one of 16 ailments. Some are fairly common, like Type II diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and prostate cancer.
The vast majority of these veterans are now in their 60s and 70s, and much more likely to develop the diseases covered by the law. Many veterans may not know that illnesses appearing so much later could qualify them for combat-related disability.
Bozella, now 63 and a retired school teacher in Longmont, found out his heart disease qualified because in 2004, he had finally asked for help for PTSD, and ended up in Veterans Administration care.
“When we were in ‘Nam, we used to talk about going back to ‘the world’, thinking how good things would be when we got home,” he said. “But it turned out to be bedlam for me. I was so confused. I couldn’t keep a job. I had trouble with authority. So I began to self-medicate through drinking, smoking and other things.”
Bozella, like many combat vets, carried that emotional baggage until some fellow vets convinced him to get it checked out. “I found out I had PTSD…. my wife had been telling me that for years but I never listened to her,” he said.
Six years later, in 2010, he developed breathing and heart problems that required doctors to install a stent.
“They (the VA) determined that it was ischemic heart disease that was related to Agent Orange,” he said. Ischemic means decreased blood supply, and it is one of the most common forms of heart disease.
“If you were in ‘Nam, even for one day, and now have one of 16 medical conditions, you qualify for benefits, automatically,” Bozella explained.
Medical conditions covered by the 1991 Agent Orange Act include:
- Prostate Cancer
- Respiratory cancers
- Multiple Myeloma
- Type II diabetes
- Hodgkin’s disease
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Soft tissue sarcoma (cancer)
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Chronic Llymphocytic leukemia
- B-cell leukemias
- Parkinson’s disease
- Ischemic heart disease
- AL Amyloidosis
- Spina Bifida and certain other birth defects in vets’ children.
There is no need for proof of actual exposure to Agent Orange or other poisons — and that makes the program differ sharply from some other federal compensation programs. Nuclear weapons workers, such as those at the former Rocky Flats plant near Denver, must find records proving significant exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals before they can get aid, and that has been a major obstacle for them.
Congress eliminated requiring proof of exposure after the Centers for Disease Control spent five years and $48 million trying and failing to identify which veterans had been exposed to Agent Orange. The defoliant, which contained a known carcinogenic – dioxin – was sprayed over nearly 12 percent of the country to eliminate enemy cover in the thick foliage, and to destroy local food sources.
The Agent Orange law, passed in 1991, states that a military person who was in Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 and has been diagnosed with one of the named conditions qualifies for disability benefits. These payments can range up to $2,673 a month for 100 percent disability.
Sailors on inland waterways, termed “brown waters,” qualify as well. Congress now has two bills pending authorizing the same benefits for “blue water” sailors, whose ships came within 12 miles of shore, because the defoliants may have drifted that far. The bill also would extend benefits to some veterans who served in Panama and the South Korean DMZ during that time.
Children of Vietnam veterans with certain birth defects also are covered.
The VA has no record of how many veterans have requested or received Agent Orange compensation, because it tracks claims only by disability. Since September 2010, just under 31,000 Vietnam vets have filed for Agent Orange compensation, according to Randal Noller of the VA.
A veteran may file a claim by presenting proof of service (form DD-214), proof of having been in Vietnam such as orders, medals etc., and an acceptable diagnosis of the medical condition, according to the VA office in Lakewood. It said most claims are processed within six months.
Of course, it’s not that simple, said Ann Weakley, a retired VA administrator and claims processor.
“The VA can be weird,” she said. “Papers get lost, sometimes it’s hard to find records, people get very frustrated. The entire process can take up to a year, including a physical exam and a disability rating board review, she said.
“But you need to stay with it. I suggest you find someone to help you, like the Veteran’s county office, the VFW or the American Legion. The state has three Veteran’s Centers in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and in the Lowry area in Denver. These are run by state employees, who can be helpful,” Weakley said.
Calling the VA directly is not advised. It has one toll-free telephone number for the entire country. On three recent tries, the average wait time was 34 minutes; the longest was 45 minutes.
Veterans can also try the local office of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. For metro Denver it is 155 Van Gordon Dr., Lakewood, and can be reached by telephone at 1-800-827-1000.
The Colorado Division of Veterans Affairs office, which can assist veterans with filing federal claims, is at 1355 S. Colorado Blvd., Suite 113, Denver, 80222. Telephone is (303) 343-1268.
Bozella now believes so strongly in helping veterans learn about medical problems associated with war that he volunteers full-time for the American Legion. He also was elected president of the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, a nonprofit umbrella organization of more than 45 veterans’ organizations helping Colorado’s estimated 460,000 vets.