Agent Orange survivor now has to brave VA system

By SANDY HODSON | The Augusta Chronicle | Published: August 5, 2018

AUGUSTA, Ga. (Tribune News Service) -- For 47 years Jim Black has never slept in a room without a door to the outside. The need for a constant access for escape is one of side effects from the hellish 13 months he spent in Vietnam.

In Vietnam medics told him he just had a drinking problem. They told soldiers they were the cause of their own suffering, said Black, a striking man with long white hair and a neatly trimmed beard, and a single, small gold earring most days.

From photographs taken in 1971, a handsome young man, not old enough to vote or legally drink alcohol, smiles tightly. Before Vietnam, he never drank or smoke. He was healthy with perfect teeth. But that was before Agent Orange.

When he spit cups of blood and his teeth started falling out, medics in Vietnam told him he had gum disease. The weird skin rashes were nothing, he was told. His breathing difficulty was because he smoked.

He joked his hair turned red because of the Agent Orange. "Now it's not so funny," Black said, still with a snort of a laugh.

It took nearly two decades after the war ended, but finally in 1991 Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, acknowledging that service men and women in Vietnam were adversely affected by the millions of gallons of herbicide sprayed on the lush vegetation in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. According to the American Cancer Society, about 3 million Americans were in Vietnam during the spraying.

Because exposure is hard to prove, the Department of Veterans Affairs is supposed to presume that all veterans who served between 1962 and 1975 in Vietnam and certain other areas were exposed to Agent Orange.

It should include Black.

He remembers it flowing out of aircraft. When the monsoons came he and other soldiers sloshed through mud tainted with Agent Orange for three months.

After what he witnessed in Vietnam, he wasn't about to go near a veterans' facility when he got back, Black said. And he didn't for decades until the day he reached for a cigarette and dropped to his knees unable to breath. He never smoked another cigarette.

His doctor eventually told him that he had to go to the VA because he couldn't afford the medicines he needed -- one inhaler alone cost $500. So, he went to the VA. Kind of.

It was around 2004, Black said. He only went for the medicines and that's basically what he got for years. But that was before he met Tina Masaracchia.

She had experience with medical issues through her work as a child's advocate and hospice care-giver. Black asked her to help him navigate through the VA. One of the first things she noted was that he had high blood pressure but no high blood pressure medication. Black said a year earlier the doctor dropped it because, he was told, he had developed an allergic reaction. But there was no substitute, Tina Black said.

Two years ago, April 1, 2016, the date is their private joke, they married. She had one condition: Black had to stop drinking, she told him. He did.

Tina Black never doubted the inner strength of the man she married. But she could see he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. He scoffed. He thought it was normal that someone couldn't sleep in a room without facing the door or that he found a dark movie theater frightening, she said. "I'm not scared of the dark," Black corrected her. It's the people in the dark, he explained.

In early 2017 she convinced him to see a psychologist at the VA for treatment of his PTSD. She's wonderful, they agree. He has a weekly standing appointment, which is a lot, "but it's because he was like chipping off a rock."

She got him to seek treatment for horrid skin rashes and neuropathy in his legs and feet. The emphysema requires medicines and inhalers and a breathing machine. When his primary care doctor expressed surprise that he wasn't receiving VA disability because he considered Black 100 percent medically disabled, she set out to apply, Tina Black said. It was in March 2017. She applied for benefits under the Agent Orange exposure.

Tina Black had been worried about her husband since November. He had dropped 20 pounds. She pestered the doctors about a chest X-ray. It had been five years since his last one. Black had it on Feb. 6. Two days later he underwent an ultra sound. There was a "lesion" on his left lobe.

A Feb. 22 letter informed the Blacks that Jim needed a biopsy to determine how to treat the suspected lung cancer. At the April 11 appointment with the thoracic surgeon, the Blacks walked out when it became obvious to them the doctor hadn't read any of Jim's medical record.

Tina Black got in touch with Augusta Oncology and Dr. David Squires, who had treated her mother. A specialized surgery on April 30 determined the tumors were stage 3, not 2 as the VA tumor board determined. Jim had his first chemo the next day. Radiation began May 29.

His next VA appointment was set for June 5, the postcard mailed notice informed the Blacks.

In response to a question about veterans being sent to Augusta Oncology while the VA department is reorganized, the VA public relations responded: "No. The VA assesses each patient's clinical needs to ensure timely access and delivery of care in the appropriate clinical setting, whether in VA or in the community."

"If we had waited for the VA, he would have been dead in six months," Tina Black said. So far, the VA is refusing to pay Augusta Oncology.

On the first Vietnam Veterans Day, the Blacks got the VA benefits notification: he only qualified for 30 percent disability. All of his medical problems believed related to Agent Orange exposure were denied. The only medical issue deemed service connected was the prostate cancer he survived, according to the letter from the VA.

Even though Black was being treated at the VA for cancers, PTSD, emphysema, neuropathy and skin conditions, the private contractor the VA selected to evaluate patients for benefits, LHI, found he didn't qualify. The Department of Defense classification of Black as exposed to Agent Orange didn't matter. Apparently neither did his medical records, Tina Black said.

The LHI media relations office did not respond to requests for comments. Asked why a Vietnam War Army veteran of 1970-71 was denied benefits, the VA responded: "It depends on what benefits the veteran was trying to claim," and suggested a link to the VA benefits section that requires a diagnoses of covered medical conditions, evidence of service in Vietnam and onset of certain conditions, such as neuropathy and skin conditions, within one year of leaving Vietnam.

The explanation of benefits references memory loss. He doesn't have memory loss, however. It also states Black reported drinking a case of beer daily before being drafted.

That's not true, the Blacks said. He was 19 with a pregnant wife and working two jobs, Tina Black said. "He didn't even have time to take a drink." And there's nothing about the tumors, adenocarcinoma, in his lungs.

"They think we're scamming them," Jim Black said. Tina still fumes that a nurse put in her husband's medical record that she was just trying to get more money.

Most importantly, a finding of 100 percent disability based on the Agent Orange exposure would mean appropriate treatment instead of over-the-counter medications, Tina Black said. It would also mean the VA would provide transportation for medical appointments -- a daily occurrence.

A finding of 100 percent also means 100 percent coverage of medications. It means he could get a handicapped license plate. And it would mean triple benefits for Jim and even $1,000 to $1,500 for Tina as a full-time care-giver. Benefits are tax free.

VA patient service told the Blacks that Jim must go through the whole benefits qualifications process again. They were told they had to provide a certified copy of Jim's divorce from his first wife from the 1970s for some reason neither understands. The representative in charge of Agent Orange services has yet to return a phone call, Tina Black said.

"I am just exhausted," she said.

"They keep you off balance. This one says I'm dying and that one says there's not a damn thing wrong with me," Jim Black said.

"You're like the rat on the wheel and you can't get off until you give up," Tina Black said. "I understand using an abundance of caution and not throwing money at someone. But to make it impossible for an American soldier to get treatment -- I can't wrap my head around that."

Jim Black knows he has Tina in his corner and she's not one to give up a fight, not when it's her husband's health at stake. But they know that other veterans are not so lucky, and some just give up and take 30-percent disability ranking that means $572 a month and a cap on prescription costs.

"I'm not the only one," Jim Black said, noting that some Vietnam vets are leery of the government. "There are some who haven't even gone into the VA yet."

(c) 2018 The Augusta Chronicle. Visit The Augusta Chronicle at chronicle.augusta.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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