WTHR report prompts review of Veterans Affairs policy
Sandra Chapman/13 Investigates
Indianapolis - A 13 Investigates report is sparking a national policy review over benefits for reservists who go to war, but aren't officially activated.
For years, a local pilot says his squadron has been unable to prove they are sick and dying from war illnesses. More importantly, some can't find records to show they even served.
Congressman Steve Buyer, the ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, called for a top-level review. Two weeks later, the VA responded.
Covert operations during Desert Storm are a must for crew safety and mission success.
But long after volunteers from the 707th Airlift Squadron returned home, a veil of secrecy and gaps of information at the VA are keeping some sick and dying reservists from medical benefits they desperately need.
"They came down with brain tumors, brain cancer, leukemia and ALS," said Lt. Col Steve Avery of Indianapolis, explaining what happened to him and nearly 50 of his crew members.
13 Investigates found it's up to the reservists to prove they were exposed to spent tank shells, uranium dust and unusually high amounts of insecticides in order to get medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
After weeks of inquiries, the VA is responding, saying the agency is not privy to records for covert or classified missions.
"We would not generally be aware of the existence of those documents," VA Deputy Director Tom Pamperin told 13 Investigates by phone. He says benefit determinations are based in part on what's in the file.
"Is there anything in the veteran's record that would suggest that this thing they're saying is credible?" Pamperin added.
Lt. Col Steve Avery was recognized in a newsletter put out by the 315th Airlift Unit in October 1991. His crew was cited as one of the first reserve units from Charleston, sent to Desert Storm.
But the VA confirms it has no record of service for Avery in 1990 or 1991. His squadron wasn't officially activated.
The VA says the Air Force Reserve destroyed the service records, leaving the sick reservists caught in the crossfire.
"If you were on active duty, like the other two squadrons, if anything happened you can go back and show those records, whereas our squadron did not have anything to substantiate that," said Avery.
The VA and Department of Defense are now creating a special Operations Command with McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida to help close the gap. The new unit will be able to confirm veterans' service, with data on classified or covert missions, without breaching confidentiality requirements. The official start of the program is expected in coming days.
"We can go to them and ask them if the veteran's service included duty assignments and others that would make their current claim credible," said Pamperin.
It won't help Avery though, a 33-year veteran who suffers from ALS like symptoms, and other ailments.
"These people were in the war zone with every one else. Our reserves are fighting our wars. So to say that they didn't have "active duty" orders or they're not covered is just...it's ungrateful to our veterans," said Avery's wife Mary Ann, who is frustrated by the complex system now in place.
Avery isn't the only one from his squadron claiming Gulf War illnesses. The Air Force isn't keeping track, so he created a roster showing the names of more than 50 squadron members who are sick or dying from similar illnesses.
Chief Master Sgt. Wade Cheney served as a chief Loadmaster in the 707th during Desert Storm. He's battling stage 4 lymphoma, and paying for his treatment with no VA benefits.
He told 13 Investigates, "In the meantime, we are all just dying. Delay of time is on their side. Just like Agent Orange."
It's not just Gulf War vets from the 707th having difficulty getting benefits.
Cynthia Daugherty, a former C141 mechanic, was activated with a communications unit. Two years after her return, a Gulf War Care Team diagnosed her with a number or war related illnesses. She had records, but it still took two years of haggling to get full disability.
The VA concluded she was adversely exposed to burning oil fields, but not pesticides.
That was the determination despite post-war reports revealing widespread pesticide and insecticide use in housing and staging areas.
13 Investigates obtained federal EPA records showing contradictory directions given to all flight crews that read:
"Harmful if swallowed or absorbed through the skin. Avoid breathing vapors," but spray "..when passengers and crew are onboard and all doors, hatches, and ventilation openings are closed."
By the time the EPA demanded a label change, the war was over.
"If they flew C-141's or military airlift transport planes during Desert Storm, they really need to be concerned about this," said Avery, recalling what happened on board the aircraft. "As the pilot you could be up in the cockpit and look in the back of the airplane and you couldn't see the passengers because there was so much bug spray," he and others told 13 Investigates.
The VA is now reviewing Avery's flight records showing dozens of logged pilot hours before, during and after Desert Storm. They know when he flew, but not where.
Since 2001 Avery has raised post-war medical concerns. In performance reports, Avery's former bosses including Retired General Gerald Black rated him "a true patriot...A top notch staffer (who) coordinated a comprehensive investigation with federal..authorities into possible Desert Storm-related...ailments affecting...his squadron."
Eight years later, he's still fighting.
Two weeks after 13 Investigates first uncovered the problem, the VA and its Indianapolis Regional office have turned up new records for Avery including travel vouchers from the Defense Finance Accounting Service in Lawrence.
The agency hopes to make a new round of benefit determinations for him within the next 30 days.
Unfortunately, other sick squadron members from the 707th will have to pursue a similar paper chase to prove their service.