Dewey Parker worked on a flight line inspecting airplanes that sprayed the Agent Orange herbicide during the Vietnam War.
Today, the Air Force veteran who lives near Athol, as proud as he was to serve his country, believes he's paying for his Vietnam duty.
Parker suffers from invasive squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer that has left deformities to his face and hands due to ongoing surgeries and treatments for reoccurring spots.
He served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and was diagnosed with the skin cancer in 1994.
"I was told that I'd only have one to three years to live after being diagnosed, but only the man up there knows that," said the 82-year-old, pointing upward.
Radiation treatments have caused Parker to have problems with his jaw and to lose teeth. The condition has led to issues ranging from slurred speech to numbness to watery eyes.
Medical providers have told Parker that his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam and sun exposure on the flight lines during his 26 years of military service were contributing factors to his cancer, but the cancer is not on the Department of Veterans Affairs list for determining benefits associated with the herbicide.
Agent Orange was used to defoliate forests and deprive guerillas of cover during the war. It was later discovered to be contaminated with a toxic dioxin that resulted in deaths, illnesses and birth defects of vets and family members.
Parker has been denied V.A. benefits for his cancer issues multiple times in the past two years, but he and his wife Doris keep adding to the claim file with each treatment in hopes the decision will eventually be reversed.
Medicare has covered most of the medical portion of Parker's condition, but not meals and travel expenses to California and Spokane for treatments. Parker said the couple has had several thousand dollars in traveling costs and at one point had to borrow from their children to pay for them.
Parker's denial of V.A. benefits associated with his skin cancer - he has received hearing aids from the agency - is why he agreed to participate in a newly-released North Idaho survey of Vietnam veterans called "Legacies of War: A Mission to Find the Truth" conducted by Dick Phenneger and his nonprofit Veterans Services Transparency.
The survey, taken by 123 vets, is intended to increase awareness about those who were exposed to Agent Orange during the war. While most vets declined to have their name published due to fears it would decrease their chances for future benefits, for medical reasons and not wanting to come off as complaining, Parker agreed to have his name published in hopes his story may some day help fellow vets and their families affected by Agent Orange.
"It may not help me in my lifetime, but there's a lot of younger veterans than me who were into (Agent Orange) just as much that it might help," Parker said. "Maybe they'll live long enough."
Phenneger, of Post Falls, served as an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War, but doesn't believe he was exposed to Agent Orange so he doesn't have a personal battle in the benefit fight.
Phenneger said, through the interviews with veterans, he was stunned about the "callousness" of the government when it comes to vet benefits.
"To understand today's issues, I needed to understand what happened following the Vietnam War," he said of the report. "Clearly, the perpetual denial of veteran care is a systemic problem within our government. What these Vietnam veterans and their families have had to live with is shocking."
Veterans Affairs officials said the agency evaluates and decides each veterans' claim based on the evidence provided and the laws that govern the granting of benefits. Models to improve claims processing are being piloted. For consistency and quality assurance, an independent auditing group evaluates the decisions made by each regional office.
The Press provided the V.A. a copy of Phenneger's seven-page report and allowed several days for reaction and rebuttal.
"Any veteran concerned about Agent Orange exposure should enroll in the Agent Orange Health Registry Exam," an email from Bret Bowers, spokesman at the Spokane V.A. Medical Center, stated. "Dependents and survivors may also be eligible for benefits."
The agency directed those with concerns to www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange or call (800) 227-1000.
"The V.A. has a process which gives all veterans who served in Vietnam full opportunity to seek benefits and health care," Bowers wrote. "The examination by compensation and pension practitioners at the V.A. Medical Center allows a first-look opportunity to diagnose and confirm whether any presumptive conditions for Agent Orange exposure are present in the veteran and to what extent. If confirmed, the veteran will then be placed into a primary care team for active health care and treatment."
Phenneger said some V.A. staff are outstanding and acknowledges the agency has been adding diseases and illnesses to the benefit list, but doesn't believe the V.A. has done enough for vets and in a timely enough fashion.
He said he has read other reports, including one Admiral E.R. Zumwalt Jr., submitted in 1990 to the V.A. on the association between adverse healthy effects and the exposure to Agent Orange, so he had an understanding of issues over delays or denial of benefits heading into the survey.
"But I had no idea how this was impacting our neighbors," he said.
One vet, a medic who transported wounded soldiers, said he was told he didn't qualify for assistance because he wasn't stationed on the ground.
"How can they say I wasn't contaminated when every soldier I pulled into the chopper was covered with the stuff?" he said in the report.
An airplane mechanic said he was denied because he wasn't in the fields.
"But dozens of times every day it was my job to scrape the belly of the planes dropping Agent Orange to check for stress fractures," he said. "While I was scraping, that stuff would wind up covering me from head to toe."
Phenneger said the survey information will be submitted into a computer statistical model developed by Columbia University scientist Jeanne Stellman. The report and data will be submitted to Idaho's congressional leaders, veterans and vet organizations.
Dewey Parker said he's "too dang stubborn" to give up on fighting for benefits for his fellow veterans' sake and the fact that he spent 26 of his prime years serving the country. His worsening condition is fueling that drive.
"My theory is, 'Is there something I should be doing about it?'" he said. "This has got to get somebody's attention."
- A copy of "Legacies of War: A Mission to Find the Truth" can be read at phenneger-associates.com. Click on the link that says "Legacies of War - Agent Orange."