Becky Sager cries all night. She wonders how many years her battle with the Veterans Affairs Department is taking from her life. VA is always on her mind as she watches her husband, Ben, “go from the bed to the chair to the couch” and tries to remember a time when he was active.
Former Sgt. Ben Sager, 65, of Montpelier, Va., says he’s one of thousands of victims of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals the Air Force sprayed in South Vietnam. The purpose of the chemicals was to destroy rain-forest canopy to deprive the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese of a natural protective cover. Experts debate whether this method of chemical warfare achieved any military purpose, but no one debates that the herbicides sickened American airmen.
VA accepts proof of physical presence in Vietnam as evidence of exposure. Airmen who served in Thailand must show that they served at the perimeter of an airfield.
Sager was a C-130A Hercules flight mechanic who spent temporary duty, or TDY, at Ubon, Thailand, and flew into South Vietnam.
He has documents, but they’re not good enough for VA.
Afflicted with type 2 diabetes that he says causes constant head pain and nerve compressions in his back, Sager is losing his mobility and losing his fight with VA.
“I feel they’re treating me as a liar,” he said in an Aug. 14 telephone interview.
“The VA claims to be reducing its backlog,” said Becky Sager, 50. “They’re doing that by denying people. If you can stay on their phone long enough, you reach a real human being who doesn’t know anything. They whittle you down until you’re nothing.”
Former Tech. Sgt. Sam McGowan, a C-130 loadmaster in Vietnam and author of “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime,” a history of airlift, said there were thousands assigned to C-130 units who served on TDY in South Vietnam but can’t satisfy the VA they were there.
“No airlift C-130s were ever assigned to permanent duty in South Vietnam. The Air Force maintained three wings in the region and used them to support combat operations in Vietnam,” McGowan said.
Ben Sager has records to show he was in one of these airlift units from December 1966 to May 1968 and is credited with 128 days of service in Southeast Asia. He has a performance rating saying he served 60 days at Ubon, and flew six shuttles in “Southeast Asia.” If the rating had explicitly named his destination for those six missions — Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam — Ben and Becky Sager might be getting VA financial help today for his range of medical issues.
Many believe VA has improved in recent years.
The boss at VA, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, is liked and respected. But airlift crews from the Vietnam era — Sager being only a symbol of many — are being dealt an injustice. They share this injustice with others who served aboard the C-123K Provider aircraft that did the actual spraying. Shinseki needs to give these veterans his personal attention.
The Vietnam herbicide issue requires a fresh study from top to bottom at the highest level in VA headquarters.