DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's follow up now some reporting NPR has done on World War II veterans who were exposed to mustard gas and secret military experiments. The Department of Veterans Affairs promised disability benefits to the men who were permanently injured, but NPR found many have been denied. The VA says they don't have enough proof. This problem has come up before and Congress stepped in to help, but that took over a decade. And as NPR's Caitlin Dickerson reports, these vets are running out of time.
CAITLIN DICKERSON, BYLINE: To understand the predicament of World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas, you need to hear about another set of American veterans who were exposed to a different toxic chemical.
ALAN OATES: We were providing security for an engineer outfit that was cutting jungles. And over in the distance, you could see three planes were flying, and they were spraying something.
DICKERSON: The vets served in the Vietnam War. They were exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides. Alan Oates knew that spray he saw was being used to clear away brush in the Vietnamese jungle, but he thought it was otherwise harmless.
OATES: When I first noticed a problem, I had tremors in my left hand. I had one finger that started - just one morning started moving back and forth.
DICKERSON: Almost four decades after coming home, Oates got a diagnosis that changed his life - Parkinson's. He's one of thousands of Vietnam veterans who came down with diseases after returning from the war - like type II diabetes, skin disorders and rare cancers.
MIKE LEAVECK: And people were comparing notes and realizing that gee, you've got that same rash I do.
DICKERSON: That's Mike Leaveck, former head lobbyist for the group Vietnam Veterans of America. Leaveck says that back in the '80s, there was some research to support veterans' claims for disability benefits. But according to the VA, it wasn't enough.
LEAVECK: Constant denial and, you know, we have to do more work, we have to do more studies, we have to have more evidence.
DICKERSON: Evidence - the VA relies on it. Before it will grant benefits, it wants proof that a vet's disability was caused by military service. But the Vietnam veterans couldn't prove they were exposed to Agent Orange. It wasn't recorded on their personnel records. So Leaveck and his fellow advocates went to work. They recruited thousands of advocates, organized marches and letter-writing campaigns. Leaveck says he quote "lobbied himself blue" - ten years later, success.
LEAVECK: Proof of exposure is the key. Congress finally came in and said cut it out. You just have to presume it.
DICKERSON: You just have to presume it. Congress passed a law that required the VA to presume everyone who served in and around Vietnam was exposed. This law addressed a problem that some World War II veterans are facing right now. They were exposed to mustard gas in secret military experiments. Last month, NPR reported that some of them are still fighting for benefits. The VA says they don't have enough proof. And the few that are still alive are in their late 80s and early 90s now.
CHARLIE CAVELL: I've had two heart bypass operations; I wear a pacemaker now. I have congestive heart failure. I have stage 4 kidney disease.
DICKERSON: Charlie Cavell is one of thousands who were used in the testing. Many of them don't have documentation of their exposure because it was done in secret. Bart Stichman is an executive director at the law firm that helped get the Agent Orange law passed. He says that if these vets had another decade, maybe they could get a similar law enacted.
BART STICHMAN: The VA's run by the people who've been there for a long time. And they continue to do things the way they've been doing things. And moving the ship is a very difficult proposition.
DICKERSON: More than a dozen lawmakers have called on the VA to provide benefits in response to NPR's reporting. And the VA responded, saying it's working in good faith to do right by these veterans. But Stichman says he worries that the vets won't be able to keep that momentum from waning.
STICHMAN: It's going to take somebody to take up their cause. Because of their small numbers and their age, I don't think they're going to be able to pursue this on their own.
DICKERSON: Stichman says the vets' best chance at benefits is a heavy-hitting member of Congress to champion their cause all the way to the finish line - or two, or more. Caitlin Dickerson, NPR News.
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