I-TEAM: 'This is wrong' Vietnam vet waits as VA stalls on adding several illnesses to Agent Orange list
Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020
News 12 at 6 O’Clock/NBC at 7
AUGUSTA, GA (WRDW/WAGT) -- Tens of thousands of veterans are running out of time as they wait on the government for help. It has to do with a list of illnesses connected to Agent Orange exposure.
Fourteen illnesses are on that list, but the government has known for years now that it should add more.
In fact, it should be four more. A most recent report links Agent Orange to hypertension in 2018. The other ones? Researchers sounded those alarms 4 years ago. So why are they not on the list?
Let’s start with the story of Joseph Bongard, who will very happily share a few of his war stories from Vietnam.
“I like telling them two stories because I didn’t get wounded,” Bongard said
Other stories, though, he'd rather keep to himself. He was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division first in the Highlands, then in the jungle.
"War is hell,” Bongard said. “You do things you never dreamt you'd do sometimes."
Bongard, a sergeant major, saw a lot of death in the jungle, so when the jungle started to die, he admits he was relieved.
"Oh yeah, when we come to an area that had been hit with Agent Orange, everything was dead, and we could relax, we could walk through it, didn't have to worry about getting ambushed,” Bongard said.
Still, something worried him about the way Agent Orange looked -- not as it was being sprayed -- but in the days and weeks after.
"Hanging from the dead limbs and vines, it looked like melted plastic,” Bongard said.
It looked unnatural, and it concerned Bongard.
“It told me to stay away from it,” Bongard said. “And not to go grab it and touch it and play with it. That's when I cautioned my men -- leave that stuff alone."
Years later, he believes that stuff ambushed him. And not just once -- or twice -- or even 3 times.
"I had four bladder cancer operations,” Bongard said.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded on March 10, 2016, that bladder cancer "may be linked to Agent Orange Exposure during Vietnam War."
And this isn't just any research body. It's pretty much the research body when it comes to shaping this kind of policy.
And it appears --the VA is not acting on its findings.
Take this letter from the United States Senate to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. It's dated September 2019 and references a letter from January 2019, saying a decision to add more illnesses to the list "could be expected this summer." Then, during a March 26 hearing, a promise of a decision in "90 days."
"Mr. Secretary, thousands of veterans -- many of whom are aging and in urgent need of critical health care and benefits, have waited far too long for a decision that should have been made by the VA in 2016. We therefore urge you to add Parkinsonism, Bladder Cancer, Hypertension, and Hyperthyroidism to the list of presumptive health outcomes for service-connected exposure to Agent Orange without further delay,” the letter said.
Four years after the research -- and 5 months after this letter -- still, nothing has been done.
“This is wrong,” Bongard said.
Still, retired Sgt. Maj. Joe Bongard held out hope the government would make it right, so he's been to the Department of Veterans Field Service Office. We went with him as he requested help with filing his Agent Orange claim for bladder cancer. We wanted to record the process with my cell phone. We were told no. That didn't surprise us, but what we heard next did.
The employee urged Bongard not to apply for benefits until bladder cancer was officially on the list. The reason -- he claims a denial before that happens would make the Augusta field office look bad.
“I'll probably never see it,” Bongard said. “I'm 88 now. How much more do I have to go?"
Adding these illnesses could cost the government billions.
Some experts believe there needs to be more than four added. Even the American Cancer Society suggests a link between prostate cancer and Agent Orange. It lists it right on its website for all to see.
The government, meanwhile, is yet to admit or act on that connection.