Reducing the haze on Agent Orange

Local nonprofit launches Vietnam veterans’ survey

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Dick Phenneger is on a mission to assist his fellow Vietnam veterans and their families.

The Post Falls man, who served as an Air Force pilot and started a nonprofit called Veterans Services Transparency, has launched a North Idaho survey of Vietnam vets in hopes of increasing awareness about those who were exposed to the Agent Orange herbicide during the war.

“We’re doing this survey to get the word out on exactly what happened to these guys and gals so we better understand,” said Phenneger, who has a background as a business analyst.

Agent Orange was later discovered to be contaminated with a toxic dioxin compound that resulted in deaths, illnesses and birth defects. The herbicide was intended to defoliate forest, depriving guerrillas of cover.

Phenneger said all Vietnam veterans in the region — regardless of whether they believe they were exposed to the herbicide during combat or not — are encouraged to participate. Information from the survey could lead to an expansion of the cancer and disease list tied to Agent Orange that is recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There is no cost to participate in the survey, names will be kept confidential and the live interviews are expected to take 15 to 20 minutes.

“They’ll have a release form that they sign that will protect their information,” Phenneger said.

Veterans are encouraged to contact Phenneger or a survey volunteer at rep@vstnow.org or 457-VET2 (8382) before June 16 with questions or to participate. Among the information that is being sought is confirmation of being a Vietnam veteran, their unit number and approximate dates in Vietnam.

Forms can be mailed or emailed to veterans or they can be filled out during live interviews at various area locations. More information on the nonprofit is at www.VSTnow.org.

Phenneger has presented his project, which is being assisted by Columbia University Scientist Jeanne Stellman, to local veterans’ organizations that have, in turn, offered to provide volunteers for the survey.

The survey information will be submitted into a computer statistical model developed by Stellman. Results will be submitted to Idaho’s congressional members and others.

“We’ll use Dr. Stellman’s model for matching spray missions with troop locations,” Phenneger said.

Phenneger said he hopes the survey will serve as a model for other regions of the country to follow and he’s willing to provide guidance to others if need be.

Vietnam veteran Bob Hunt of Post Falls is among those who supports the survey and plans to participate. Hunt has colon and eye cancer and was exposed to Agent Orange in various ways during his duties on river patrol during the war.

“Dick has bitten off a big something to do here and veterans can help themselves and their families by participating,” Hunt said. “This could help prove that additional sicknesses came as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. We simply want to be able to present new information that may be of assistance to veterans and their families.”

Hunt, active in the Fort Sherman Chapter of Disabled American Veterans, estimates there are 10,000 to 12,000 Vietnam veterans in North Idaho.

Phenneger said he doesn’t believe he was exposed to Agent Orange as a pilot, so he doesn’t have a personal stake in the survey other than wanting to help fellow veterans.

Phenneger said he doesn’t believe the V.A. has done enough with regard to studies and reports on Vietnam War veterans. He said he believes the department has “basically ignored” some reports, including one Admiral E.R. Zumwalt, Jr. submitted in 1990 to the V.A. on the association between adverse health effects and exposure to Agent Orange.

“The cultural attitude at the top needs to change,” said Phenneger, adding that the V.A. has some fine physicians. “And it’s not just Dick Phenneger saying that.”

In a written statement, the V.A. said it evaluates and decides each veteran’s claim based on the evidence provided and the laws that govern the granting of benefits. It states models to improve V.A. claims processing are already being piloted.

“These pilots ... will identify the laws, regulations, policies and practices that need to be changed to make improvements in our delivery of benefits to veterans,” it states.

“For consistency and quality assurance, an independent auditing group evaluates the decisions made by each regional office and measures all aspects of the claims process.”

After the Vietnam survey is complete, Phenneger said he’ll consider performing a similar survey of Gulf War veterans, who have also had health problems due to exposure to depleted uranium.

•••

Lines are open for Vietnam vets

Vietnam veterans interested in participating in a survey performed by the local nonprofit Veterans Service Transparency or for more information, call 457-VET2 (8382) or email rep@vstnow.org before June 16. Additional information, including how to make a tax-deductible donation to the nonprofit, are at www.VSTnow.org.

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