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Family of Vietnam vet exposed to Agent Orange still fighting for benefits 11 years after his death

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- You know the old saying, 'You can't fight city hall.' A Milwaukee woman says it's even harder to fight the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Andrea Vossekuil is convinced that her father died of a disease connected to his exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used by American troops in Vietnam. For the last 11 years, she and her mother have been trying to prove it. The Veterans Administration has asked them to get 'more evidence' time and time again. Each time they do, they are told it's not enough. But what happened two months ago left them feeling like the VA had led them on a wild goose chase for more than a decade.

Vietnam was perhaps the most unpopular war in American history. To say it left a toxic legacy is more than hyperpole. For thousands of veterans, it is a medical fact.

Michael Vossekuil served aboard the USS Ogden in the waning years of the war, from 1972 to 1975. When he returned home, he developed a severe case of acne that did not improve with conventional treatments. He later developed severe pain from his pelvis to his neck. Then heart disease. Loss of eyesight. Kidney failure.

"We were always visiting him in the hospital," said Andrea, recalling her childhood. "That was his life. He was always sick."

The war took a toll both physically and psychologically.

Michael Vossekuil was a US Marine who served aboard the USS Ogden from 1972-1975.

Michael Vossekuil was a U.S. Marine who served aboard the USS Ogden from 1972-1975.

"He would always ask me to draw the shades," said Lucy Carrao, who married Vossekuil in 1987 and had three children with him "He said, 'Luce, they're coming.' He would call me Luce, Lucy. And he said, 'Pull the shades down, they're coming.'"

Michael Vossekuil had been a strapping young U.S. Marine. But his daughter can only remember the sickly man the war left behind.

"I'm sorry," she said, choking up and struggling to speak.

When her father died, Andrea was 13 years old. Her mom had no idea how she could support three children on her own.

"Some friends says 'you can get help since he was in the military,'" Carrao said.

Carrao applied for a variety of survivor's benefits, year after year. Every time, she was denied. Eventually, the effort to find new evidence became too much.

''I just said, 'Andrea, help me. I can't do this anymore,'" Carrao said. "And she goes, 'Don't give up.'"

When Andrea was old enough to go to college, she took over the research, hoping to find something that would help her qualify for financial aid. And that's when she learned about Agent Orange.

"And you believe that's why he died?" asked FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn. Andrea did not hesitate in response.

"Absolutely," Andrea said.

Agent Orange was a powerful mixture of chemicals used by U.S. military forces to eradicate the dense forests of Vietnam, so the enemy had nowhere to hide. It was an effective herbicide, but it was also toxic. It would later be found to cause serious health issues, from birth defects to cancer.

In 1991, the United States government declared that anyone who served in Vietnam was automatically presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. And when a veteran dies from an Agent Orange related condition, his surviving dependents are eligible for service-connected death benefits known as Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, or DIC. The VA now associates more than a dozen diseases with Agent Orange exposure.

"You had to have one of these medical issues," Andrea said. " He had three.

Vossekuil

Andrea Vossekuil was 13 years old when her father died. She's been helping her mother apply for survivor's benefits ever since.

Andrea said medical records she's obtained show her father came home and developed a severe case of acne known as "acne vulgaris." That was the beginning of what she calls a "domino effect" that led his health into a downward spiral that ended with his death in 2004 from heart failure. She was certain his illnesses were among those that qualified for service-connected benefits.

There was just one problem.

"They said they couldn't find that he was in Vietnam," Andrea said.

Over the years, Andrea and her mother have spent countless hours on the phone with the VFW and the Department of Veterans Affairs. And they've obtained hundreds of pages of records from the National Archives.

"This is all our work," Carrao said, pointing to stacks of paperwork laid out on her dining room table.

They've acquired military discharge papers, immunization records, doctor's notes, deck logs, service medals and photographs of Vossekuil on a ship in the Pacific. The VA said none of it was sufficient proof that Vossekuil had served "in" Vietnam.

"It didn't say, 'This Marine stepped boots on ground,'" said Andrea.

It was clear her father served on the USS Ogden and that the ship made numerous dockings at Da Nang, Vietnam. But the VA says a veteran must have "stepped foot on land" to be automatically eligible for Agent Orange benefits. And nowhere in the records they had compiled did it say that Private First Class Michael Vossekuil had gotten off the ship.

"That is the only record that they don't keep," Andrea said.

It's a problem Navy and Air Force veterans often face in proving Agent Orange claims, because records that verify their service on land may have been destroyed.

"It is the one thing they were always asking for," Andrea said, referring to the proof of service on land. "Because they knew that that was something we wouldn't be able to provide."

Andrea refused to give up. She went directly the U.S. Marine Corps, peppering the headquarters with emails and phone calls, begging for help. In February, a letter arrived from Quantico, Virginia. It was sent by the U.S. Marine Corps' personnel office. It had the proof she and her mother had been seeking.

"I go, 'We got boots on ground!'" said Carrao. "And I started screaming. I lost my voice."

"We were celebrating," her daughter recalls. "We went out to eat. It was like the happiest moment. We finally, after 11 years, we got exactly what we needed."

Agent Orange was a chemical herbicide used by US forces in Vietnam to eradicate dense forests and vegetation, making it harder for the enemy to hide and survive. It was later found to be highly toxic.

Agent Orange was a chemical herbicide used by U.S. forces in Vietnam to eradicate dense forests and vegetation, making it harder for the enemy to hide and survive. It was later found to be highly toxic.

But the celebration soon turned to bitter frustration when the VA denied their claim again. In a 31-page denial letter, the VA praised Vossekuil for her "diligent assistance" in helping the VA to "place" her father in Vietnam.  The VA finally concedes that Michael Vossekuil was exposed to Agent Orange. Only now, they say, he did not die of a qualifying disease.

In 2010, ischemic heart disease -- otherwise known as coronary artery disease -- was added to the VA's list of conditions that are automatically presumed to be connected to Agent Orange. But the VA says Michael Vossekuil had "both" ischemic heart disease and valvular heart disease. And according to a medical review by a VA examiner, there is a "less than 50 percent probability" that ischemic heart disease contributed to his death.

"What do we do now? What do we need to find?" Andrea wondered aloud. "We don't know what to find now."

The VA had Michael Vosskekuil's death certificate all along. His medical records are not new. Why then, Andrea asks, did the VA tell them for 11 years to "keep searching" for evidence that he served on land in Vietnam, so they could establish a service connection? Why send them chasing after the information only to deny them anyway?

The Department of Veterans Affairs declined FOX6's request for an on-camera interview. In a written statement, the VA says more than 617,000 veterans have been granted service connection for an Agent Orange condition. However, the VA points out that these cases can be "medically complex." In the case of Michael Vossekuil, the agency writes, "a decision has been made."

Andrea still isn't giving up.

"I have been doing this way too long," she said.

Andrea and her mother have the right to appeal the VA's latest decision. And they have. Their records have been forwarded from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., for review by the Board of Veterans Appeals. That most likely means a lot more waiting. The VA currently has a backlog of claims and appeals. Andrea said an advocate from the local office of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) told her it could take up to three years for the appeal to be considered.

11 comments

  • Mel

    This is an absolute disgrace to our veterans. One of my friends fathers died of this chemical exposure, had all three conditions and had difinitive proof he was in Vietnam. They claimed to him and his family that the Army records they needed to prove his place “on the ground” were burnt in a fire of their records hall in the 80s. He suffered and died and the V.A. has done NOTHING BUT DENY AGENT ORANGE WAS THE CAUSE OF THE ACNE VULGARIS, LIVER AND KIDNEY FAILURE AND CANCER. THESE PWOPLE HAD DEFINITE PROOF. WHERE ARE THEIR BENIFITS? The government will never pay what is right because, #1 They don’t have the money. #2 If they open the flood gates all soldiers there would have an active claim. Cause the truth is EVERYONE their was exposed to it. #4 We are STILL paying the Vietnamese reperations for this. You will never get the arrogant, selfish old rich men in office to knowledge they actually made a mistake.

    • Jodi

      No one said they should just allow every Vietnam vet to file claims but if someone died and it is proven its from exposure then they should do something . If I worked at any store or business and died as a result of their mistake my family would get a large amount of money which do not get me wrong I want my dad back and money won’t fix that but at least pay for the funeral is my opinion!

  • Happy

    The VA in Milwaukee is the worst. I’m in the process of a claim that I started 7 months ago. You try to contact your State Senators but that will not do you any good as I contacted Sen. Ron Johnsons office and only got the information that I ready know. the second piece you can try is to contact your local VSO (Veterans Service Officer) and hope they have a homeboy hook up. otherwise the VA does not care because there is no accountability there. ask anyone who works for them.

  • Michael Kuykendall

    inunderstand there pain. My grandmother has gone through a lot as my grandfather also was exposed to agent orange and was diagnosed with leukemia and eventually died from it. My grandfather beat it two times but the third time cancer won. The only good thing is the third time my grandfather did not suffer he went quick because I knew how much pain he was in. My grandmother always had to fight the VA for benefits So I see where they are coming from. My grandfather was in the navy served his country 25 years and for them to fight for benefits is a disgrace to the flag that these men and woman fought for. I sure hope this family gets the help they need. I don’t know what my grandmother did but I think she just gave up. I am great full she’s still around.

  • Don Ferestad

    Lawyers lie and their are more lawyers in the Democrat party than card carrying communists. Don’t serve unless it is for your country and don’t wait for what you earned. History will show you that. Jefferson was the 1st Republican-Democrat US President opposing the Wigs. He also defunded the US Marines going to the Halls of Montezuma and left 100+ US Sailors in captivity being tortured by the Muslims.

  • Jodi

    My father was in Vietnam for two tours and at 60 yrs old developed spots on his lungs that he was told were a result of exposure. It ended up being cancer which had spread to his brain and he died two months later. We had sent the VA all of the proof then they sent a letter saying they had their physicians look at it and they attributed his death 100% to exposure of Agent Orange yet we were not able to get one penny because our mom passed away 6mo later and only a spouse can get benefits. They wouldn’t even pay funeral costs for him even before mom passed so im sure had she lived she wouldn’t have got anything anyway it is awful that they say that he died from exposure however sorry no help though!

  • james

    I am a vet just got 30%.thay don’t make it eze I don’t think thay like vets.would us just to go away.

  • Victoria

    VIETNAM VETERANS AND FAMILIES THIS IS FOR ALL OF US. I ASK EVERY PERSON TO SPREAD THE NEWS TALK ABOUT THIS , POST ON FACEBOOK AND EVERY POSSIBLE WAY YOU CAN SHARE INFORMATION . THIS BEGINS WITH THE QUITE RUMBlE AND WILL BE LIKE AMERICAN . POWERFUL ,STRONG , LOYAL AND CONVICTION OF STEELE. VIETNAM VETERANS THIS IS YOU, THE WHY,WHERE,HOW AND REASON EVERYTHING GOOD FULL CIRCLE WAS SEWN . HISTORY AND TIME IS GOING TO BRING ALL OF WHAT IS VIETNAM TO EACH INDIVIDUAL AMERICAN ALIVE AND EVERY ONE THAT WILL LEARN WHAT IS VIETNAM FROM HISTORY WILL BE BINDING IT ALL INTO STRONGER ,CLOSER, STRENGTH,COURAGE, ENDURANCE AND TRIUMPH. IT IS YOUR LIFE, SACRIFICE ,COURAGE AND QUITE BURDEN YOU HAVE CARRIED THAT IS THE REASON AS THE FUTURE COMES THAT VIETNAM WILL BE ASSOCIATED WITH HONOR COURAGE STRENGTH AND TRIUMPH FROM ADVERSITY. IT IS TYING US TOGETHER AGAIN. CLOSER AND STRONGER. EVERY MAN AND WOMAN THAT SERVED OR EXPERIENCE WHAT IT IS AND WAS FOR THEM SHOULD KNOW WHAT IT WILL BE. …….WILL BE.
    Lt. Colonel John H. Hayes U.S. Army Special Forces first generation and one of the few men to first wear the Green Beret he showed President Kennedy the organization and training of his small gorilla units that live behind enemy lines with native population to gain intelligence and help people free from opression. second he being a gorilla warfare fighter.
    Dad. He died two weeks after asking me to make sure Vietnam was not forgotten and remember his men were there that people didnt forget his men were there. He went to Vietnam until his death march 1984. less than six years into “retirement” at the age of 45 . twenty years almost to the day his boots hit Nam ( that was documented he was there) pancreatic cancer from decades of dioxin exposure. I was 13.
    I am going to complete the third promise I made that night to my father it has been a part of my journey for 32 years . I NEED YOU VIETNAM VETERANS TO HONOR A VIETNAM VETERANS WISH HE DID NOT WANT TO LEAVE BECAUSE YOU ARE HERE AND YOU ARE STILL THERE. DAD WAS THERE BEFORE PRESIDENT KENNEDY AND VIETNAM AND HAS ALWAYS BEEN EVEN RIGHT NOW. NEVER to doubt his patriotism, service or choice to be an American Warrior. Leader and wear the Green Beret. the “quite professional ” A man the world will always need for living with basic human rights and human dignity on earth.
    My daddy, we spent 13 short years together I know the world has to have men like him here. I have had 32 years here without him . Each day harder than the next. I pine for the thought that you a Vietnam Veteran will read this . Each and every soul to do so. I am going to copy and past this post all over the information highway. I asked you to do that for Him. Tell any human you are led to and copy and post this through the world. So every one still alive gets the message from their brother and commrade. John Hayes.
    coming to share to the world soon for Vietnam Veterans , Dad and me. “A WALK WITH MY FATHER, Memoir of a Brat” My 13 years I was with the man who is why i am me. Why I need you and why you need to hear from me. I have had heard uneducated and sadly unaware people say Vietnam the war we lost. How can you lose a war that is not over? Men are still dying everyday living with war Vietnam. In 2014 one of our men came home to clarksville Tn . His tour of duty started in 1970. I am telling you that your commrade and brother did not want to leave you and would not leave , God made that choice. My life 45 years at this moment is , has been and will be living with the Vietnam war.I have more for us . This is not a war that I will see over in my lifetime ………..the will be ….will be …. is going to arrive one day. The good that is bringing us all closer together than before the war sewn into all that has been bad is here I get to see that in my lifetime.
    AMONG SO MUCH I will share with you first his commrades my brothers and sisters.. the rest of the worlds population will catch up. The journals were to brief President Kennedy on the mission and objectives. The night dad ask me to take care of specific request he needed. He gave me a box of some things and told me to always keep it with me. I always have . I took it with me to the hospital when my son was born. It was the tools I needed to full fill the three promises and for me to help live a lifetime without him .It took me 32 years to understand , process and impliment what it all would do and how . He knew. I get to tell the world about an amazing man , one of the few elite , skilled , intelligent , deadly, cunning, educated , Over acheiving successful , leaders and Jungle warfare gorillas who was skilled in the art of Psychological warfare. ……thats just a sound bite. …….The Journals they were given to me. You see I was born with a federal security clearance , educated and raised by The first generation of U.S. Special forces men and the men who wore the Green Beret. I was picked up from pres-chool in a shnook , at many poker games and meetings , Under a desk in the U.S. Capital for a meeting. first hand and direct knowledge of missions to vietnam for extraction and recon in the 1980s. I knew the words to Ranger cadence songs and mission and hand signals for chopper landings before I spoke whole sentences. The vietnam war and the men who wore the Green Beret were my childhood 24/7 intil age 13. The world will learn about it if they choose to read it . I am telling it to take care of responsibility I have . For several reasons. My personal gain to write it all down and to share any of this in public a tool to overcome loss. The money the book makes . It is not mine and I do not want it. It belongs to the men and women that are Vietnam Veterans and Veterans of other conflicts. I look forward to writing the checks and handing them to you. Respectfully paying Uncle Sam any Homage due. ……there is so much yet to do. I do need your help . To take care of dad, to finish writing and publish the book. to assist you Vietnam service members for ehat you need , funding the missions to find our men in Nam and bring them home. While given the opportunity to possibly share back with the Families in Vietnam if else share grace forgiveness and kindness to a country America contributed Dioxin too, ……I enjoyed writing this long unedited paragraph of 32 years of wanting to talk, being the daughter of A “quiet Professional” I was the “quiet Brat” I am going to copy this and post it to every site that pertains to service members of Vietnam. I ask you please share this too. Dad is with you and you can help him to. I can contribute to us all GodSpeed and ……….the Journals from dads mission in Nam . They were supposed to be for President Kennedy and addresing the information on it all and asses the situation there in a breif period of time…..the rest we know , never intentions to be a war that has lasted 70 decades. on The Presidents part or The S.F. It went from Vietnam to me in 1984. I look forward to scanning it and letting you read too. The references that in high sight point to dad exposed to Dioxin through the years along with photographs of the barrels in photos in later years , his service records , medical records and documentation from day one until his tombstone all say Vietnam including his death certificate, The thought That the “powers that be” might shake a bit with welll preserved information , that covers every bit of a shut and closed case that dioxin killed my father quickly. Not the jack and coke and cigars at the poker games. ….little things like that make me feel warm and happy inside. Godspeed . Look for my social media sites I am putting up. I would like to see if the the minutes here from my first official therapy session will post. The memior will have paragraphs and commas , with spell check. just to clarify.

  • Kevin Schoolcraft

    My father just pasted away and was diagnosed with several of these. I have tried to get someone at the V.A to help with this but NO HELP FROM THEM. My father told me that when he would pass away there was a death benefit to me and my brother. But again the V.A no nothing about it. I have talked to multiple and I do mean multiple people at the V.A hours of being on hold and directed to someone else to tell me the same thing I cannot help you sir sorry for your loss. It’s getting rather taxing and I feel sorry for these Vet’s that have to go through all of this. It is really sad that are great country could care less about these guys breaks my heart.

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