Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Years after wars, vets still battling for life

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 1/7/2013

As a member of the U.S. Air Force’s security police during the Vietnam War, Ottawa resident Jim Reed patrolled the perimeter of a U.S. air base in Thailand for two years.

He patrolled in 120-degree heat and heavy rains during monsoon season. And one thing was as constant as his rounds: the presence of Agent Orange.

As a member of the U.S. Air Force’s security police during the Vietnam War, Ottawa resident Jim Reed patrolled the perimeter of a U.S. air base in Thailand for two years.

He patrolled in 120-degree heat and heavy rains during monsoon season. And one thing was as constant as his rounds: the presence of Agent Orange.

“They sprayed the perimeter of the base, around the barracks — anywhere there was foliage to keep it from growing,” Reed said. “Of course, we didn’t know it was Agent Orange at the time. They didn’t tell us what it was. We thought they were spraying for mosquitoes.”

Reed started his two-year Vietnam tour of duty in 1968 — about the time Wellsville resident Lyle Shepard was wrapping up his two-year tour of duty in 1968 as a member of the U.S. Navy Seabees outside Da Nang, Vietnam, where he served in communications. Shepard also said he frequently was exposed to Agent Orange. And, like Reed, he said he had no idea what the toxic de-foliage chemical was until years later.

Fallout from war

Shepard and Reed, who both are 65, said Agent Orange has taken a toll on their health.

Reed has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and Shepard has suffered several strokes because of an ischemic heart disease. Both conditions have been recognized by the Veterans Administration as being connected to Agent Orange herbicide exposure.

Both men have filed benefits claims with the Veterans Administration, both with the aid of a new Veterans Advocacy Group in Ottawa called Veterans Corner II.

Reed’s wife, Kathy Reed, serves as secretary on the board of the nonprofit organization, which lists among its goals “to provide a friendly environment to help all veterans and dependents complete the required documentation for VA benefits, service-connected benefits and widow benefits,” according to the group’s mission statement.

“When we filed Jim’s claim, sometimes we would have to send in 30 pages of documentation at a time,” Kathy Reed said. “Applying for benefits can be a daunting task for some, and that’s why our organization is here. We want to assist all veterans, not just Vietnam veterans, in applying for the benefits they are entitled to receive.”

The Veterans Administration has approved Jim Reed’s claim, while Shepard’s still is being processed.

Shepard said he met Ottawa native Kathy Lee, president of Veterans Corners II, in front of the Ottawa Walmart Supercenter one day a couple of years ago. Since then, he has become active in trying to help others receive assistance as well and is a member of the Veterans Corner II board.

“We want to help as many veterans as possible,” Shepard said. “They don’t have to just be Vietnam veterans. We want to help all veterans.”

Shepard and the Reeds stressed the service is free.

“We don’t charge anything, and no money changes hands,” Shepard said. “We don’t ask veterans to make a donation. We want to make it clear that this is a free service.”

A new mission

Veterans Corner II is patterned after the original Goldsby, Okla.-based Veterans Corner, which has helped more than 5,000 veterans across the country, Kathy Reed said. Reed said the original group’s founder, Dale Graham, gave Ottawa organizers permission to use the Veterans Corner II name, along with providing the local group with “valuable advice and encouragement.”

“We are not part of the [original Veterans Corner], but they are a tremendous source of support,” Reed said. “They are there to answer any questions we may have.”

After training as an advocate, Lee began to assist veterans out of her Ottawa home three years ago. To date, she has helped more than 100 local veterans file claims with the VA, Kathy Reed said.

Since Veterans Corner II was established three months ago in October 2012, the group has helped about a dozen more veterans file their VA paperwork, Reed said.

Veterans Corner II meets from 1 to 4 p.m. every second, third, fourth and fifth Thursday of the month at the Ottawa Recreation Community Center/Goppert Building, 705 W. 15th St., Ottawa.

“Veterans and their families should bring any of their military records they have in their possession when they come for assistance,” Kathy Reed said. “But even if they don’t have any paperwork, they should still come, because we can help them request their records.”

Symptoms surface

The veterans advocacy group also stresses the importance of educating physicians about symptoms of Agent Orange exposure and now the Gulf War illnesses that are beginning to surface, she said.

“Jim suffers from PTSD, and his doctor in Olathe recently told him that he had seen four other Vietnam veterans that week who were suffering from it,” Kathy Reed said. “We are coming to understand more about [post traumatic stress disorder]. A lot of Vietnam veterans worked hard, sun up to sun down, to forget about the war. Now that many of them are reaching retirement age and no longer have their jobs to occupy their time, PTSD symptoms are starting to surface.”

Jim Reed and Shepard both retired about four years ago. Reed said he worked for 26 years at an airport near Gardner, while Shepard said he worked in construction for 40 years in Kansas and several neighboring states.

“Now fireworks and trains bother me,” Jim Reed said. “I wake up with night sweats and can’t sleep. This just started happening after I retired.”

More than 50 types of cancer and other illnesses have been connected to Agent Orange. But as bad as that list is, Shepard said, the list of illnesses for Gulf War veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is even worse. Jim Reed nodded in agreement.

“As long as the Agent Orange list is, the list for Gulf War veterans is two or three pages longer,” Reed said.

Outside the harmful effects of Agent Orange, Reed suffers from other health problems related to his stint in Vietnam, including partial hearing loss.

“We had at least six to nine B-52 bombers flying out every three hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Reed said. “Being around that constant noise cost me some of my hearing.”

Giving 110 percent

Kathy Reed said many other veterans tell the same stories. She said that is why the Veterans Corner II group is committed to helping veterans, their dependents and their widows.

“I think everyone at the VA means well, but they are overwhelmed,” Kathy Reed said. “Often, veterans don’t get all the information they need. Many veterans also don’t know that they can request their records, and that just because a previous claim has been denied doesn’t mean that it cannot be reopened, especially as new evidence has come to light.

Jim Reed said the list of Vietnam veterans who are dying in their 60s continues to grow.

“I get a newsletter that lists the names of deceased Vietnam vets, and it’s not uncommon to see guys in their 60s on that list — a lot of them die of cancers on the Agent Orange list,” he said. “We have to do something about it.”

Kathy Reed said the Veterans Corner II group doesn’t guarantee that every claim it helps file with the VA will be successful, but she said veterans can come to them with the assurance that the group will do everything in its power to help them.

“We will give it 110 percent,” Shepard said.

For more information about the group, call Jim and Kathy Reed at (785) 418-8756 or Kathy Lee at (785) 418-4059.

Doug Carder is senior writer for The Herald. Email him at dcarder@ottawaherald.com

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