Vietnam veterans are falling ill

In the past few years, Dr. Michael Koopmeiners has seen a surge in the number of veterans seeking help for war-related disabilities at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. At Koopmeiners’ clinic, which evaluates new disability claims, business has more than doubled since 2004 -- from 6,800 to nearly 15,000 patients a year.

In the past few years, Dr. Michael Koopmeiners has seen a surge in the number of veterans seeking help for war-related disabilities at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.

At Koopmeiners’ clinic, which evaluates new disability claims, business has more than doubled since 2004 — from 6,800 to nearly 15,000 patients a year.

But only a fraction of the cases has anything to do with Iraq or Afghanistan.

Instead, most are Vietnam veterans who have waited until now, more than three decades after their war ended, to come forward and seek help. Vietnam veterans, he says, outnumber those of every other conflict combined.

Nationally, too, Vietnam veterans are coming forward by the tens of thousands with a vast array of medical problems, from hearing loss to cancer, that they believe are connected to their military service. In 2007 alone, a quarter-million veterans were added to VA disability rolls — more than a third of them Vietnam veterans, according to a VA spokeswoman.

The question is: Why now?

To some extent, the recession is fueling the surge, say experts and veterans groups. Anyone with a military disability may qualify for free care and monthly payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But aging bodies and changing rules have made more Vietnam veterans eligible than ever before, says John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America.

“Most folks walked off the battlefield in one piece and felt ’OK, I made it,’ “ Rowan said. “What they didn’t know was there was a whole lot of stuff that would come up and bite them in the butt 40 years later.”

In particular, many are developing illnesses that have been linked statistically to the notorious herbicide Agent Orange, which was widely used in Vietnam. Even though some conditions are quite common — such as diabetes and prostate cancer — the VA views them as service-related disabilities.

So veterans such as Jim Fiebke, who never thought they would be asking the government for anything, are finally doing just that.

Fiebke, a retired sales executive from Rochester, Minn., spent a year as an Army clerk in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970.

“When I came home, I was tan and healthy and in good shape,” said Fiebke, now 61. “I thought I was home free.”

He had no reason to doubt it for 30 years, until he was 52 and developed multiple myeloma, an insidious form of cancer of the blood cells and bone marrow. At first, Fiebke figured it was just bad luck. But in 2003, a chance encounter in a parking lot left him wondering if his illness could be an aftershock of Vietnam.

“This lady walks up and says, ‘Is that your car?’ “ he recalled. She had noticed his Vietnam-veteran licence plate, as well as the telltale signs that he was fighting cancer (”I didn’t have hair and looked a little sick”). The woman told him that she had lost her husband, a Vietnam veteran, to cancer, and that there was a connection to Agent Orange. “You should get in and check on that,” he remembers her saying.

“I did. And I was just shocked.”

Fiebke learned that his cancer was one of the diseases that the VA calls “presumptive conditions” — presumed, that is, to be caused by Agent Orange.

During the war, the U.S. military sprayed an estimated 20 million gallons of the herbicide on the Vietnamese jungle. Afterward, debate raged for years over its health effects as studies found high rates of cancer, nerve disorders and other ailments among veterans. Finally, in 1991, Congress authorized the VA to draw up a list of illnesses and treat them as war wounds; Type II diabetes was added in 2003.

Fiebke assumes he was exposed to Agent Orange; the area around his base camp “was just sprayed down to nothing.” But all he needed to show was that he served even one day on Vietnamese soil to qualify.

“When I applied (for disability), I went down thinking I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. He was approved almost immediately and rated 100 per cent disabled because of the severity of his illness. That entitled him to “top priority” care at the VA and $3,000 monthly disability payments. The money allowed him to retire at age 57 and concentrate on his health, he said.

Fiebke admits that he was stunned by the outcome.

“There are people that would say these people are getting money and medical care and they don’t even know for sure if Agent Orange did it,” he said. “And that’s true.”

But Rowan, of Vietnam Veterans of America, says there’s no reason to feel guilty.

“Believe me, they don’t give this out easily,” he said. The science may not be able to prove cause and effect, but it has shown a connection.

“Even though (these illnesses are) in the general population, we seem to get it worse; we seem to get it at a higher rate,” he said.

As of last fall, 12 per cent of Vietnam-era veterans were receiving disability payments averaging $11,670 a year, according to VA statistics, and the total number of veterans receiving disability benefits had climbed to nearly three million. Meanwhile, the requests have hit record levels.

It can be tricky to tell if some conditions are service-connected three or four decades after the fact, says Koopmeiners, who runs the clinic that assesses those claims. For something like hearing loss or knee problems, he said, the VA still has to ask: Is it old age or an old injury?

“What I tell my examiners is that we have to have a healthy dose of skepticism, but we can’t be cynics,” he said. “We have to walk this fine line.”

If the medical evidence is unclear, he adds, “the tie goes to the veteran.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta identifies 1,183 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

50.5% of all active cases are variants of concern

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie pose for a photo at the Mirror restaurant. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Alberta Health Services delivers ‘closure order’ to Mirror restaurant

Alberta Health Services says it has delivered a closure order to a… Continue reading

Flags bearers hold the Canadian flag high during the Flags of Remembrance ceremony in Sylvan Lake in this October file photo. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
New project to pay tribute to Canadians killed in Afghanistan

Flags of Remembrance scheduled for Sept. 11

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta vaccine rollout expanding to front-line health-care workers

More than 240,000 eligible health-care workers can begin booking vaccine appointments starting… Continue reading

File photo
Security and police block the entrance to GraceLife Church as a fence goes up around it near Edmonton on Wednesday April 7, 2021. The Alberta government has closed down and fenced off a church that has been charged with refusing to follow COVID-19 health rules. Alberta Health Services, in a statement, says GraceLife church will remain closed until it shows it will comply with public-health measures meant to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Hundreds gather to support Alberta church shut down for ignoring COVID-19 orders

SPRUCE GROVE, Alta. — Hundreds of people are gathered outside an Alberta… Continue reading

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 8, 2016. The Canadian Armed Forces is developing contingency plans to keep COVID-19 from affecting its ability to defend the country and continue its missions overseas amid concerns potential adversaries could try to take advantage of the crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canadian special forces supported major Iraqi military assault on ISIL last month

OTTAWA — Some Canadian soldiers supported a major military offensive last month… Continue reading

A woman pays her repects at a roadblock in Portapique, N.S. on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The joint public inquiry in response to the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia has announced a mandate that includes a probe of the RCMP response as well as the role of gender-based violence in the tragedy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Creating permanent memorial to Nova Scotia mass shooting victims a delicate task

PORTAPIQUE, N.S. — Creating a memorial for those killed in Nova Scotia’s… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Erin O’Toole says ‘I didn’t hide who I was’ running for Conservative leader

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole assured Conservative supporters that he never hid who… Continue reading

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, second from left, celebrates his goal with teammates, from left to right, Matthew Tkachuk, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson, of Sweden, during second period NHL hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers, in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Jacob Markstrom earns shutout as Flames blank Oilers 5-0 in Battle of Alberta

CALGARY — It took Sean Monahan breaking out of his goal-scoring slump… Continue reading

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia's opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan's government, but they say Monday's throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province's economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s opposition parties acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented… Continue reading

A grizzly bear walks on a treadmill as Dr. Charles Robbins, right, offers treats as rewards at Washington State University's Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center in this undated handout photo. Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails like those commonly used by people, which can affect land management practices in wild areas, says an expert who has written a paper on their travel patterns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Anthony Carnahan *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Grizzly bears prefer walking on gentle slopes at a leisurely pace like humans: study

VANCOUVER — Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails… Continue reading

FILE - In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. Moderna said Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, its COVID-19 shot provides strong protection against the coronavirus that's surging in the U.S. and around the world. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
The COVID-19 wasteland: searching for clues to the pandemic in the sewers

OTTAWA — When Ottawa Public Health officials are trying to decide whether… Continue reading

Most Read