Monday, May 30, 2016

Arthur's War! World War II Hero's 70-Year Fight with the VA

War hero Arthur Lincoln Winters

When the Germans declared war against the United States on Dec. 11, 1941, Arthur Lincoln Winters (left) couldn't wait to get into the fight. 
Winters, a proud Jewish-American from New York City who had enlisted in the Army a year before, was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, the famed Big Red One.

He quickly became a decorated soldier, surviving gunshot wounds to his right arm and shoulder during a fierce, three-day battle with the Germans in Northern Africa in 1942. 

Lying all night on the battlefield at Djebel Berda in Tunisia, Winters almost bled to death but was captured by the Germans. He subsequently endured more than two years in brutal German prisoner-of-war camps from Germany to Poland. During those 25 months, Winters was tortured, frozen and almost starved to death.

But as harrowing as his war years were, his longest and arguably toughest battle didn’t start until after he came home.

Winters, who wanted to stay in the Army after the war but was rejected presumably because of his physical and mental condition as a result of his combat and imprisonment, was honorably discharged in 1945. He filed for disability just a week later.

Still malnourished and weak from his imprisonment, and still in chronic pain from the gunshot and shrapnel wounds, Winters could barely lift his right arm. He was also still relearning how to walk because both his feet were frostbitten after being forced by his German captors to march barefoot in sub-freezing weather.

Winters was also coping with severe PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress) before it was called PTSD. The hypertension, nightmares and flashbacks from being shot in combat and his prison internment stayed with him the rest of his life, his family says.

It took two years for Veterans Affairs (VA) to review his disability claim. But after the lengthy wait, Winters was given just a ten percent disability rating by the VA. He didn’t understand this decision. He had told the original examiner about all his health issues, not just the gunshot wound. 

After earning a Purple Heart and a large boxful of medals fighting for his country, he felt abandoned by his government. For the next 64 years, Winters fought the VA. During this agonizing struggle, multiple documents were lost by the federal agency, which years later admitted to making several key mistakes in Winters’ case.

The VA acknowledged that its doctors performed two unnecessary, back-to-back bladder surgeries on Winters in 1971 at the VA hospital in Albuquerque, which Winters’ family said permanently damaged his urinary tract and had other devastating health repercussions.

In 2000, 55 years after the end of World War II, the Board of Veterans Appeals determined that Winters' service-related injuries qualified him for 100 percent disability. But the agency made the pay retroactive back only to 1998, not to the date many of his injuries were incurred in 1945. 

This ruling incensed Winters, who said he had been disabled by far more than 10 percent when he returned home in 1945 and had multiple documents to prove it. 

In a 1995 interview, Winters told a newspaper reporter, “After I got my combat wounds, I never bothered anyone. I always felt I could depend on my government. I always thought it would take care of me. But now I’ve lost faith.”

In December 2011, while still fighting for his disability benefits, Winters died at age 92.

Family Continues to Fight on Winters’ Behalf

Regina Winters, 75, met Arthur in 1980 in Albuquerque and they were married in 1981. Regina, who’s 20 years younger than Arthur and calls him "the love of my life," had to quit her job and provide 24-hour care for him from 1985 up until his death. 

She continues to fight the VA on behalf of herself and her late husband, whose family and friends called Lincoln. 

Regina and Arthur Winters
“Lincoln spent all those months in German prison camps, and he was Jewish,” she said. “Can you imagine what that experience must have been like? They tortured him. They beat him. He had nightmares about it even when I met him. He had multiple health issues related to his service, but the VA just kept denying him.”

Regina said one time while the war prisoners were being forced to march barefoot in the snow, one of the soldiers collapsed and Lincoln tried to help him.

“The guard immediately hit Lincoln in the back very hard with the butt of his rifle,” she said. “But that was one of the things attracted me to Lincoln. He was strong and brave. He was the kind of person who liked to take charge of things and stick up for others.”

At the time of Winters’ death, Regina said, there were still nine pending claims that had not been settled by the VA.

"The VA threatens, they intimidate, and they just wait for veterans to die,” she said. “They try to discredit the veteran any way they can. We lost our home. We lost everything. I couldn’t work because I needed to take care of him.”

Will this Case Ever Be Resolved?

After seven decades, Winters’ family might finally see a resolution to this seemingly never-ending case. Winters’ attorney, Benjamin Krause, a Gulf War veteran who’s helped many veterans seeking their disability benefits, said the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) notified him a few weeks ago that a judge has decided to send Winters’ back to the VA for re-adjudication.

Krause wouldn’t predict the outcome of this case, but called the court’s decision “a new start. There is new hope."

Regina Winters added that her husband never ever lied to anyone, especially not to the VA.

“Lincoln always told the truth, and he showed proof of everything he said,” she said. “When he would write things to the VA, he always had dates and names and places. Lincoln was a wonderful man. He was understanding and kind, and despite his serious medical problems I enjoyed being with him. He taught me a lot. I will never stop fighting for him.”

VA Would Shoot Him Down

According to Krause, the fact that the Army separated Winters from active duty because of the severity of his wounds in combat and his poor physical and mental condition post-internment should have sent an "obvious message" to the VA that Winters was much worse than ten percent disabled. “He had trouble even raising his right arm, and he was right-hand dominant,” Krause said.

Documents provided by Krause to The Reno Dispatch show that while Winters was in prison, a French doctor and an English doctor performed a makeshift surgery on Winters in primitive conditions, which caused an aneurysm.

The VA has conceded that records have gone missing in this case, but the agency adjudicated the claims anyway, according to Krause, who added that each step of the way, whenever a new service-related health issue would come up, “Mr. Winters would qualify and apply but VA would shoot him down.” 

While the VA also admitted performing the two unnecessary and back-to-back operations on Winters in 1971 at the VA hospital in Albuquerque, the agency denied that it caused permanent damage to Winters. Multiple doctors say it did.

A “Clear and Unmistakable Error”

In 2009, Winters sent the VA office in Albuquerque proof that he was entitled to benefits based on a “clear and unmistakable error.” He included a document from the War Department dated March 23, 1943 that states he was wounded in action. 

Winters also included his Purple Heart certificate for wounds received in action, a statement from a family stating two wounds Winters suffered in action on that same date, and a statement from a so-called Protocol Exam from the Albuquerque veterans hospital stating operation of the aneurysm on his right arm, which was done in a POW hospital in Italy in 1943. The statement also noted his feet were frozen from being a POW.

Still, the VA would not budge.

“VA’s basic position was that it had handled all of the Winters’ claims and that nothing was left pending before the court,” Krause said. “This is, of course, a patently false statement.”

Krause said there are also questions about the Army's post-POW nutrition regimen at Camp Lucky Strike where “they practically force fed the POWs eggnog so the families would recognize them after the war. Did rapid calorie intake induce malnutrition complications later that VA fought to deny?”

Krause said VA also concluded without evidence that Winters had a personality disorder instead of psychosis after the war, “as if more than two years in captivity as a POW had no effect.”

Krause shared documents with The Reno Dispatch showing that in 1972, VA conceded missing records but adjudicated with missing evidence anyway, and that in 1973, Winters identified what records were still missing but the agency disregarded his statement in support of claim for missing records.

In 2009, Winters presented the missing records that were certified from the Red Cross and translated for his formal claim. The error was proven in 2009 and VA conceded the error in 2013, according to documents provided by Krause, who said VA failed to consider documented POW evidence that proves Winters’ claims going back to 1945.

“VA ignored Winters’ evidence that he provided in 2009,” Krause said, adding that VA refused to admit it violated Winters’ due process rights and was called out by a Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) judge.

In 1964, VA finally published its previously secret “1945 Schedule” for rating disabilities. The rating schedule was misapplied in Winters’ case, as he was not awarded disability for his aneurysm that resulted from the gunshot wound, said Krause, who added that the VA would "bury evidence and then deny" at the Board of Veterans Appeals with regularity before veterans were allowed court review.

“VA ignored evidence that should have been in its possession for decades,” Krause charged. “It repeatedly claimed it needed more evidence, and all the while it could have granted the claims with the evidence it already had."

Did VA Shred Winters’ Documents Over the Years?

Krause said countless documents have gone missing in this case over the last 70 years, and it would not surprise him if VA shredded evidence. A recent investigation by VA’s Inspector General (OIG) concluded that the VA has been systematically shredding documents related to veterans' claims.

Investigators audited 10 veterans benefits offices around the country and found that staff were destroying mail related to claims, according to a report by, which cited an OIG report.

Investigators reportedly arrived unannounced at VA regional offices and sifted through 438,000 documents awaiting destruction. Of 155 claims-related documents, 69 were found to have been incorrectly placed in shred bins at VA offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Reno, Nev.

No Help from 2016 Presidential Candidates

While Regina Winters has reached out these past few months to both of the presidential frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, neither has responded to her.

But public officials from Sen. John McCain and Sen. Chuck Schumer to former Congressman and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have attempted to help the Winters family.

McCain tried to convince VA to help Winters for 15 years, to no avail. In 2005, Richardson wrote on Winters’ behalf to Teri Beer, a supervisor at the VA’s Appeals Management Resource center in Cleveland.

Richardson told Beer that Winters "continues his 50-year appeal of the VA's failure to award him 100 percent disability benefits since 1945 and to compensate his wife for the 24-hour care she provides him… Additionally, there is some question regarding negligence on the part of a surgeon who operated on Mr. Winters in a VA hospital. The negligence was admitted, but Mr. Winters has been denied compensation for the ongoing problems resulting from the incident… I ask that you give Mr. Arthur L. Winters every consideration under the law.”

Is VA Inherently Adversarial to and Distrusting of Veterans?

Regina Winters said she was unable to enjoy the latter years of her marriage because she was busy providing 24-hour care to her husband without assistance.

“The Winters were in poverty and eventually lost their home,” Krause said. “The loss of income from her late husband resulted in credit card collectors hounding her for payments she no longer has. If VA paid the money it owes her, she would no longer be scraping by.”

Krause believes the VA owes the Winters family approximately $1.4 million for disability pay dating back to 1945. “I would be curious to know when the VA plans to write the check,” he said.

Krause said this case crystallizes the frustration so many American veterans and their families feel when dealing with the VA.

“This case could be called the ultimate example of how badly our troops are sometimes treated after they come home,” Krause said, “and how the agency too often takes on an adversarial role rafter than a  supportive role from the moment the veteran leaves active duty. We are hoping that VA honors the sacrifice Arthur Winters has paid after two years as a POW and so many years fighting for justice.”

When reached for comment on Winters’ case, a spokesperson for the Veterans Benefits Association, the healthcare wing of the VA, stated the following:

"Mr. Winters was originally service connected at the 10 percent evaluation for his gunshot wound based on the evidence of record and the fact that this was the only issue he claimed at the time. However, throughout his lifetime, Mr. Winters claimed additional issues and was ultimately service connected with an evaluation of 100 percent,"

But Krause said the VA is not telling the truth about what Winters initially told the agency.

“It's clear that Mr. Winters was diagnosed by a VA doctor with residuals of a gunshot wound that included scarring, numbness of the right hand, diastolic problems in his right arm, and aneurysm secondary to gunshot wound," Krause said. "VA had a duty to rate him for those conditions but only rated him for the gunshot wound scar.”

Further, Krause said Winters also told the VA doctor about his two years as a prisoner of war, the surgery performed on him while he was a prisoner, the fact that he was in a POW hospital for several months, and his other health problems. 

Krause pointed to documents showing that the original VA adjudicator erred in not rating Winters’ aneurysm and other conditions secondary to the gunshot wound. “It is clearly written in the medical evaluation in 1948,” Krause said. “His 1967 evaluation and POW evaluation in the 1980’s discuss his other conditions VA tried to evade.”

Krause said Winters' written statement in 1945 does not mean that the veteran only sought a disability rating for the gunshot wound scar, as VA asserts. 

"One thing to remember is that the POW records we now have may have been classified back in 1945," Krause said. "VA had a duty to seek out all records related to his captivity but failed to do so."

Krause wonders why the Army in 1945 considered Winters unfit for duty when he was only ten percent disabled. 

"Most can stay in the military until 30 percent disability," he said. "The VA said Mr. Winters had a scar, but the Army said they could not keep him, despite his honorable discharge and just ten percent disability rating. A scar kept him out of the Army?"

Krause said Winters' initial rating in 1947 clearly should have been 80 percent. "Mr. Winters was lowballed from the beginning," he said, "and the VA continues to cling to this lie nearly 70 years later."

Friday, May 27, 2016

President Obama Squanders Historic Opportunity to Help American Veterans and Vietnamese Civilians

President Obama and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang
During his first trip to Vietnam this week, President Obama successfully established friendlier ties with the Vietnamese government. But did America's first Generation X President lose his soul in the process?

Sure, Obama rightly scolded Vietnamese leaders for their still-shaky record on human rights. But he blew off the Vietnam War and those who still suffer because of it. 
In one speech, Obama, who at age 54 is actually smack-dab between the baby boom and X generations, noted correctly but ill-advisedly that he is the first American president to come of age after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

"When the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, I was just 13 years old," Obama said. "So I come here mindful of the past, mindful of our difficult history, but focused on the future: the prosperity, security and human dignity that we can advance together."
It's understandable that the well-intentioned President wants to look forward and put that horrible war in Air Force One's rear-view mirror.
There's just one problem with that: The Vietnam War isn't over. Not for millions of people in the United States and Vietnam. 
Since 2002, hundreds of thousands of US veterans who fought in Vietnam have sought disability benefits because of their exposure to Agent Orange, the extremely toxic herbicide that was dumped on about 20 percent of South Vietnam by the US military from 1961 to 1971 to flush out the enemy. 
But many of these veterans are still struggling to get this coverage for themselves and their families from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). 
Many of these veterans now have glioblastoma, for example, a very deadly type of brain cancer. But these veterans are still being rejected by the VA, despite the fact that many renowned brain cancer experts have linked glioblastoma to the herbicide.
Meantime, more than 3 million people in Vietnam have reportedly suffered from exposure to Agent Orange. Babies in Vietnam are still being born blind, deaf, and with many other serious birth defects because of Agent Orange.

"I was very disappointed that President Obama did not mention much about the Orange Agent issue [this week]," said Christina Cao, who was born and raised in Vietnam and came to the US in 1991 at the age of 19 via the Humanitarian Operation (HO) program. 

Cao's father, a lieutenant colonel who fought alongside US soldiers during the Vietnam War, was captured and imprisoned by the Viet Cong for 10 years after the war.

"After 51 years, the effects of dioxin still persist in Vietnam," said Cao, who did not speak a word of English when she arrived in the US but is now an executive in charge of more than 40 pharmacy accounts nationwide. 

"The Vietnamese and many US veterans are still living with the consequences of Agent Orange," she said, "including unspeakable deformities, glioblastoma cancer, liver damage, pulmonary and heart diseases and more. "

Obama, who landed Friday in Iwakuni, near Hiroshima, spoke today as the first sitting President to visit the city on which the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. 

He did not apologize for the bombing of that city. But his speech was an eloquent reminder that the world is a very dangerous place, with weapons of mass destruction now at our fingertips.

He could and should have made an equally poignant and powerful speech about war and peace while he was in Vietnam. Because, arguably, the use of Agent Orange for a decade in Vietnam was just as destructive as the two atomic blasts in Japan and has had an equally devastating and long-lasting impact. 
To date, the US has only done a small amount of humanitarian work to clean up what the US military left behind in 1975 when the US Embassy was evacuated and America came home. 
The US has made some effort to assist people suffering in so-called "hot spots" in Vietnam where the most AO was dropped. 

The US is helping clean up Da Nang, for example, the Central Vietnam city that was hit hardest by Agent Orange and was the site of a US air base during the war.

Congress has spent more than $100 million on that cleanup, which is a good start. But most of the work has still not been done. 

Agent Orange is one of the most harmful chemical substances ever created. Tens of millions of gallons of it were doused in South Vietnam. The damage and suffering it caused is profound.

Very few men and women who served in Vietnam knew how harmful these herbicides were at the time. 

But the chemical companies knew. And some US military brass knew.

The spraying of Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants in Vietnam was nothing less than chemical warfare. And its inventors, Monsanto and Dow, clearly knew its potential harms from.

Dr. James Clary, a scientist at the Chemical Weapons Branch, Eglin Air Force Base, reportedly told Senator Tom Daschle in 1988, "When we (military scientists) initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide."
Clary went on to say that makers of the toxic defoliant knew that the ‘military’ formulation had a much higher dioxin concentration than the 'civilian' version due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. 

But because the material was to be used on the 'enemy,' Clary told Daschle, "none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide."

That sounds like a war crime to me.

Dr. Meryl Nass noted in a 2002 report for the Organic Consumers Association that a 1969 report commissioned by the USDA found that Agent Orange showed a "significant potential to increase birth defects." 

The same year, Nass wrote, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) confirmed that Agent Orange caused "malformations and stillbirths in mice."

After reading all that, if you still don't believe Monsanto and Dow knew how devastatingly harmful this compound could be to humans, you probably also don't believe that Monsanto's Round-up, the most popular weed killer in the world, does not cause non-Hodgkins lymphoma. But studies show that it does.

Despite the President's lost op' in Vietnam this week, the opening he has created in Vietnam these past few days will likely lead to more positive partnerships. Silicon Valley, for example, is itching to get its products into Vietnam and to find the budding genius tech entrepreneurs there.

But if we're going to do even more big business in and with Vietnam, it would be immoral to not reach out to the victims of the Vietnam War who still suffer, on both sides of the world. 

The haunting echoes of that tragic war still reverberate in the hearts and minds of the millions of Americans and Vietnamese who were there, and who are still here.