Fifty years after the Vietnam War, some veterans are still dealing with health effects caused by Agent Orange. A law clinic at Penn State is working to get veterans the help they need.
John Gority, from Duncansville, remembers getting up close and personal with the herbicide “Agent Orange” when he was in Vietnam.
“All the vegetation was kind of like wilted and slimy and I’m touching it and smelling it and I’m like, what is this stuff?” Gority said. “I didn’t know anything about Agent Orange or spraying to kill vegetation or anything like that.”
Gority told this story during a recent Story Corps interview with WPSU. He became a type 2 diabetic not long after he got back from the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until years later that the Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledged a connection between diabetes and Agent Orange. Eventually Gority got a 20 percent disability rating from the VA.
His brother Ray had issues after Vietnam too.
“I know when he come home he had a real bad skin disorder, where his back would break out in all these sores,” Gority said. “And they would not admit it was from the Agent Orange.”
His brother later had ischemic heart disease and oral cancer. Gority said it eventually killed him.
If Gority or his brother went to the VA now, they would find all their issues on a list of “presumptive conditions” the VA recognizes as associated with Agent Orange exposure. Those include a skin condition called chloracne, type 2 diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, ischemic heart disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson's disease, prostate cancer, some respiratory cancers and soft tissue sarcoma.
Michele Vollmer is the director of the Penn State Law Veterans and Service Members Legal Clinic, formed in 2015. She says veterans whose diseases are on the list can often just go to the VA and get a disability rating.
The problem comes when it’s not a “presumptive condition” and they need to appeal their case. Many veterans can’t afford the legal and medical experts that requires.
Vollmer and the students who work in Penn State’s veterans legal clinic do the medical and case law research for free and they’ve found some medical experts willing to donate their time as well.
The clinic’s first case was a Vietnam veteran and former Penn State professor with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, or AML. It’s a cancer that often develops later in life and that is not on the list.
“For him, it was really about the service connection and the recognition that Agent Orange was horrible and should never have been used in the way that it was used,” Vollmer said. “That's what it was for him. It wasn't about the money at all.”
Vollmer and her students had to prove the connection between AML and Agent Orange and get him as high a disability rating as possible. All those steps take time.
“So, it would have been roughly nine months in total,” Vollmer said, “but spanning two years before we had a final result for the client because of the VA system.”
They eventually proved the connection and got him a 100 percent disability rating. They hope to eventually get AML added to the VA’s list of diseases caused by Agent Orange.
In between a few major cases, the clinic has done dozens more. Those include educational benefits appeals for current Penn State student-veterans and pension cases for WWII and Korean conflict veterans.
It was two law students who came up with the idea for the law clinic. One of them was Justin Bish, who was also a fairly new officer in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard at the time.
“I started seeing issues that my soldiers were personally facing with the VA after coming back from deployments,” Bish said. “And I wanted to make a difference and try to improve their lives while also teaching those who weren’t involved in the military some of the issues I was seeing my soldiers face.”
Bish worked on that original Agent Orange case. He was already graduated and working as a lawyer in State College when it was finally finished, but he says Vollmer emailed him that they had won.
“I was very proud of the work we’ve done. And I was very emotional,” Bish said. “After decades of people telling him, ‘Your illness wasn’t from your service,’ we finally got it for him. It was a surreal experience.”
Bish said he’d like to see the administrative process for dealing with these cases improved. Appeals to the Boards of Veterans for different states can yield different results for cases with very similar details. And each case doesn’t create precedent for the next one.
“We had this with one of our experts we talked to,” Bish said. “They said, ‘Hey, I already wrote an expert opinion on the very same thing with this other veteran on the same location. I already did this. Why do I have to do this again? Can’t they just grant the benefit?’ No, we had to go through the process again. That’s why it takes so long.”
Bish is one of only a handful of lawyers in Centre County who specializes in veterans’ law. He said he hopes the Penn State veterans legal clinic will encourage more students to focus on veterans’ legal issues.