WWII vet exposed to radiation at Hiroshima wins VA benefits fight

A broad view of a portion of Hiroshima, Japan, is seen after a uranium-238 atomic bomb dubbed 'Little Boy' was dropped on the city Aug. 6, 1945.


By KEVIN FAGAN | San Francisco Chronicle | Published: January 25, 2014

John Brenan rolled his Jeep into freshly bombed Hiroshima in 1945 on a reconnaissance mission to see whether there was any enemy left to fight. The only enemy the Army sergeant found in the miles of rubble pulverized by America's atomic attack was the one he couldn't see: radiation.

The fallout surrounded his body, and that is almost surely why he got colon cancer four decades later, his doctors told him. Brenan managed to beat the disease, but then came the follow-up battle -- filing a disability claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It took until last week for him to win that battle. And victory only came with the help of a member of Congress.

On Friday, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, Calif., stood in her office with the 90-year-old Brenan and said his case is an example of the vexation that can come with filing for veteran disability benefits. But it's also evidence, she said, that the VA is making progress on clearing its infamous backlog of claims.

"This kind of thing should never happen, and we are working hard to make sure it doesn't," Speier said, as Brenan sat next to her in a walker-chair, a World War II veteran's cap on his head. "John's claim was denied over and over again, mistakes were made over and over, and he only finally got his benefits because we wouldn't take 'no' for an answer."

Brenan said he was always happy with the care he got at the VA Palo Alto hospital. It was both saddening and mystifying to him, however, that it took so long to get monthly disability payments that now help him stay in his Millbrae, Calif., home with his daughter as caretaker.

He said he had no idea of the invisible danger he was rolling into back in 1945. The obliviousness is starkly represented in one photo of him standing in Hiroshima's ruins, eagerly drinking from a Japanese vase filled with water he'd just pulled from a nearby well.

There's little doubt that the water was contaminated with radiation from the bomb that had just killed more than 80,000 people in the Oakland-size city.

"I was just doing my duty," Brenan said, tears filling his eyes as he recalled those days. "I'm sorry, it's just been so hard. I just hope my case helps make things easier for a lot of other soldiers."

When Brenan first filed for disability in 1986, while being treated, he wasn't eligible for payments because the VA didn't cover radiation-caused colon cancer in World War II veterans. After being rejected, he filed again in the 1990s and was again denied.

Then, in 2002, federal law changed to cover Brenan's type of cancer. But he didn't know about that change until after his daughter, Jill Pell, moved in to take care of him, and she read a notice about it that came in the mail from a veterans group.

The family filed again for disability in 2010 -- but was rejected again. This time, Speier's office said, it was because the VA mistakenly determined he had the wrong type of cancer. That's when Brenan contacted the congresswoman, and with the help of her office, the claim was finally approved last week.

VA spokesman Sean Mitsky said he couldn't comment on Brenan's case, citing health privacy laws. But he did say the department appears to be on track to fill its goal of eliminating a huge backlog of long-term claims by its goal of 2015.

The Oakland claims office, which processes disability filings from all over Northern California, has cut its files of unresolved claims from 34,000 in 2012 to 12,000 today, Speier said. Nationally, the backlog of claims waiting for more than a year has been reduced from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.

"With bravery and perseverance," Speier said, "wrongs can be righted."


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