I-TEAM: Deny 'til you die? Vets exposed to Agent Orange face struggles for coverage
Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020
News 12 at 6 O’Clock/NBC at 7
AUGUSTA, GA (WRDW/WAGT) -- We've documented how the U.S. government ignored warnings that Agent Orange was dangerous and told our soldiers it was harmless.
We've also shown you evidence it was tested at Fort Gordon and the up-hill battle vets exposed here face. But those exposed in Vietnam are fighting a battle for Agent Orange benefits, too.
It took Congress decades to pass a law to put Vietnam vets on the fast-track for help, but some say it's still too little, too late.
The U.S. military drafted more than 2 million American men to fight in Vietnam. Sgt. Maj. Merle Davis, Jr. wasn't one of them. He asked to go. When he got home, he signed up for a second tour.
“He loved the military,” his wife, Reba Davis, said.
He also loved his family.
Maybe – his wife jokes – in that order.
“He called me a civilian,” Reba laughed. It’s a good memory and a good laugh.
Lately, it's mostly been tears.
“I have my moments,” Reba said. “You’re gonna make me cry. It’s hard.”
Sgt. Maj. Davis died from lung cancer at his home on March 23 with his wife by his side. In all, he had three conditions on the VA’s list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure.
"And he would talk about how they sprayed it and how it was everywhere, in the air, in the water, in everything,” Reba said.
That's not why Reba reached out to the I-Team, though. Sgt. Maj. Davis was willing to die for his country, and ultimately, he did. It was nothing he regretted, Reba said.
"Even with the cancer, diabetes, the heart, everything. No,” Reba said. “If he was alive right now, he would tell you he has no regrets."
His wife hopes the VA does have regrets when it comes to how it processed her husband's claim. She says she needed help caring for her dying husband at home before he went home. She applied for benefits and waited. And waited some more.
When she finally got the call, she couldn't believe the timing.
"I said, ‘Well you know what, I said s'cuse my French, but it's a little too damn late,’” Reba said. “And she said, ‘s'cuse me, what do you mean?’ And I said, ‘I'm on my way to the funeral home to make arrangements for my husband,’ and I hung up the phone. I was that upset. I was floored."
Reba applied again, hoping to recoup some of their out-of-pocket costs. She also applied for spousal benefits, now as a widow. She has to wait once again.
Reba doesn’t understand it, and feels like her husband’s sacrifice is being forgotten.
“And I’m not the only one,” Davis said. “You know, that’s what’s sad, but I’m not the only one.”
Some call it “deny 'til you die.”
“Yeah,” Reba said. “Exactly. Exactly.”
If that's what's happening, the VA stands to save quite a bit of money. Claims are first denied, but then later win on appeal. Then, there are the backlogs and delays.
We asked Rep. Joe Wilson if he's been contacted by anyone locally having trouble. His office tells us they are currently working with about a dozen veterans with claims related to Agent Orange.
"We follow through any time there's a concern,” Wilson said. “And overall the level of complaints has actually dropped significantly due to the reforms of the VA. There's better service now than ever."
We've also given his office Reba’s contact info.
Our I-Team has also contacted our local VA and VA services at both the state and federal level. Since we started asking questions, Davis says the VA told her she should hear something this month.
We'll keep asking for her and for the other veterans also exposed to Agent Orange also waiting on help from the government they served.
Reba Davis says they went through a lot of their savings when her husband got sick and now she's worried she could lose her house.
Again, after we started asking questions, she was told she should know something this month -- more than 9 months after her husband's death.