BY RICHARD CURREY
It started with VVA National President John Rowan’s frustration about running into Vietnam veterans who had health problems related to Agent Orange (AO) but who were routinely unaware that they were entitled to health care and to disability compensation.
These vets were developing diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, and more than thirty varieties of cancer, yet they remained unaware that their illnesses were related to military service, and that treatment as well as disability benefits were available to them through the VA.
It was the “unaware” aspect of the problem that rankled Rowan. He had been part of the VVA’s long battle to see the Agent Orange Act of 1991 signed into law. That Act established that certain diseases and conditions would be considered presumptive evidence of exposure to AO during service in Vietnam as well as along the DMZ in Korea in the late 1960s. The Act also ensured that children of Vietnam veterans born with an array of congenital malformations would also receive care. It was a breakthrough, a historic moment in ensuring that an entire generation of veterans—and their children—would be guaranteed care and compensation earned through service to the country.
But years passed and neither the VA nor any other agency, institution, or national media outlet managed to effectively let veterans know that certain sorts of medical problems were considered AO-related and thereby compensable service-related conditions. Worse, the organization was hearing from vets with compensable diagnoses who were having claims denied or were having difficulties accessing or receiving needed medical care. The Act, designed to address glaring inequities in the care of American veterans, was looking like simply the first step in a long journey.
Beyond AO-related Vietnam-era illnesses, the nation has seen two more periods of conflict, the Persian Gulf War and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose returning vets were and are coming home with new service-related injuries and conditions unique to those varieties of warfare and theatres of operation. Like their older counterparts, these younger vets reported difficulties in learning about as well as receiving care and benefits.
Testifying before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on May 19, Rowan summarized the problem when he said that “the VA, by any standard, does an entirely inadequate job of reaching out to veterans and their families to inform them of the benefits to which they are entitled by virtue of their service, and health conditions that may derive from their time in service. I can’t tell you how many calls and emails we get from veterans, or their loved ones, with questions about illnesses that may be associated with their exposure to Agent Orange during their tour of duty in Vietnam. I can’t tell you how many times, when we meet with veterans and talk about health and healthcare issues, we are greeted with something akin to astonishment because no one has ever mentioned this to them before.”
Enter the Veterans Health Council (VHC), an innovative outreach effort created by VVA that will mine the realities of new American media and communications to target veterans and their families in more effective ways. “There is so little outreach to the men and women who served our nation honorably and well,” Rowan notes. “And because too many veterans succumb to diseases that can be traced back to their time in service, VVA has created—in partnership with nearly fifty collaborating healthcare and advocacy organizations—the Veterans Health Council.”
The mission of the VHC speaks directly to the key challenges facing veteran outreach in this country today. At least 80 percent of vets do not use the VA as their healthcare provider and only some 25 percent are members of veterans service organizations. As a result, VA or VSO messages about services, options, and programs often fail to find the veterans they are intended to reach. Traditional avenues of reaching veterans—like the VA or VSOs—can no longer be expected to reach a significant number of vets with a pressing need to understand the care and compensation they have earned.
In Rowan’s words, the VHC “aims to fill a void that has long threatened to become an abyss.” To meet this looming challenge, Rowan identifies the VHC goals as fourfold. “We want to inform veterans and their families about health issues related to their military service as well as the health care and other benefits available to them,” he says. “We want to educate health care communities about the multiple health issues associated with military service. With advocacy organizations, we want to develop educational materials for medical colleges, nursing schools, teaching hospitals, and related entities, as well as to target veterans in the booklets and brochures published by these organizations along with other means of electronic dissemination. And we want to advocate on behalf of health care initiatives for veterans and their families.”
A big job and a vital one. But how to do it?
The basic objective of the VHC comes back to a simply stated goal: To ensure that veterans get proper service-related diagnoses in a timely manner, and are fully appraised of their options for care and compensation. But, Rowan acknowledges, communication in America has changed since the Vietnam-era vets came marching home. Information is digitized and global. It is cable and satellite-broadcast across hundreds of television channels, or web-based—blogged and Facebooked and Tweeted and YouTubed. To imagine that a particular veteran in need will happen to pick up a VA or VSO brochure or see a poster just when he or she needs it has become a rare happenstance.
Those older forms of outreach might still have their place and purpose, but they can no longer be the only form of outreach employed. The wide-scale lack of awareness about health care and benefits among veterans is proof alone that more and different communication strategies are long overdue.
With this in mind, the VHC turned to the World Wide Web. A handsomely designed web site (www.veteranshealth.org) offers key information about service-related medical conditions for the three modern conflict eras (Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq/ Afghanistan). “Signature” service-related injuries or diseases vary with each, from traumatic brain injuries in the current era to AO in the Vietnam Era, but one condition spans all eras and remains the flagship malady of veterans: PTSD. For all of these conditions and many more, the VHC website is a rich resource for veterans seeking information and ideas about where to turn next.
Other related aspects of often-overlooked benefits programs are detailed at the web site as well, including Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, or DIC benefits. This program for the spouses, children, and parents of service members who die while on active duty has complicated benefits qualification criteria, but the VHC helps to cut through that red tape by spelling out the precise terms under which a surviving spouse, child, or parent might be eligible for benefits after losing a son or daughter serving in uniform.
“I am particularly upset about the spouses who are not getting Dependent Indemnity Compensation because their husband or wife died from a service-connected illness,” Rowan says. He maintains that losing a spouse to a service-connected illness is little different than losing one to a battle wound. “We are considering contact with the funeral industry to get the word out,” he says, another example of how the VHC will bring innovative communications to bear in reaching its target audience.
Perhaps most importantly, according to Rowan, the VHC web site offers general information on how to file a claim for disability compensation. “If a veteran has a service-connected medical condition, or if a surviving dependent believes that the veteran died from such an illness, the web site provides a link to a locator service for accredited veterans service representatives who can assist them in filing a claim for VA benefits.”
THE MISSION STATEMENT
The VHC formally launched with an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on February 25. With several key collaborators on hand, including representatives from Veterans for Modern Warfare, the National Association of Black Veterans, Easter Seals, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the VHC rationale and mission statement was presented and the web site was given a “test drive.” Related materials included a brochure (“Veterans & Their Families: What Your Health Care Provider Should Know”) and a laminated pocket card for doctors and health care providers with key questions to ask in eliciting medical histories from veterans.
Rowan anticipates “exponential” growth for the VHC web site. He and his colleagues on the VHC, including Dr. Tom Berger, are looking at new alternatives that the VHC can capitalize on, including articles in union magazines and corporate publications, newspaper op-eds, postings on other web sites and blogs, and appearances on television talk shows.
That the Veterans Health Council is sorely needed is an understatement. “The sad reality is that many veterans are simply unaware they may have health problems related to their military service,” Rowan observes. “Also, most private-sector physicians and other clinicians are unaware of the potential connection between health problems and military service.”
With its February launch, John Rowan’s subsequent testimony before Congress in May—in which he introduced the VHC in detail—and ongoing communication efforts from VVA, the VHC will continue to gain momentum. Information will have a greater probability of connecting with veterans in need. With that, lives will be saved or lengthened, illnesses properly diagnosed and treated, families assisted, and benefits of incalculable value to struggling vets and their families will be provided.
VVA has, over its lifetime as an organization, forged many of the nation’s most important and powerful pro-veteran initiatives. From its work with homeless veterans, its campaign to preserve the nation’s Vet Centers, to helping incarcerated vets in receiving VA benefits, championing the needs and concerns of women veterans, outspoken support for the VA’s Center for Minority Veterans, sustained advocacy on behalf of benefits applications and reviews, and the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, VVA has been at the forefront of veterans issues and advocacy.
The Veterans Health Council joins this list of achievements, with the promise of not only emerging as a prototype for disseminating information to veterans, but, at a more fundamental level, bringing critical improvements to the lives of thousands of veterans and their families.