When Compromise Is Not An Option At The VA - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Beverly Deepe Keever

Beverly Deepe Keever is a professor emerita of the University of Hawaii and the author of “News Zero: The New York Times and The Bomb,” plus “Death Zones and Darling Spies: Seven Years of Vietnam War Reporting.”

I appreciate Peter Apo’s most insightful commentary calling for a willingness to compromise on the embattled issue of installing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

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But, I submit, alas, Peter, sometimes dire circumstances dictate that compromise of any sort is not an option.

I’d like to explain by sharing the life-and-death fate my husband and I were dealt when his terminally ill condition was being treated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA is an institution that has received much negative publicity.

But I think the way the VA adjudicated Chuck’s terminally ill case may provide insights into a fair and reasonable process that decision-makers might profitably consider when trying to tease out the tangles of the TMT issue.

The VA used a three-step process.

The first — and most significant — step started one day when Chuck and I were talking with his doctor about his terminal illness at the Spark M. Matsunaga VA Medical Center in Honolulu. I mentioned casually to the doctor working for the VA that the record of the Marine Corps’ service for Chuck showed that heart abnormalities appeared a year after his 1969 departure from Vietnam.

The EKGs taken at his annual physical exam showed readings and doctor’s notes that Chuck and I didn’t understand. In Vietnam Chuck had been stationed nearly a half-century earlier at the strategic Danang airbase used for U.S. planes to spray the deadly defoliant Agent Orange over South Vietnam’s vast jungles.

When I told the doctor about Chuck’s heart abnormalities, she surprised me with an astonished look, knowing that the Marines expected all their troops to be fit and ready for duty at all times.

“You mean the Marines let him stay in the service?”

I nodded yes and whispered, “Vietnam.”

She nodded in understanding — the Marines needed troops because fighting was still raging in the Vietnam War.

Chuck Keever obit
An Agent Orange-damaged heart contributed to the terminal illness that caused Chuck Keever’s death. 

Doctors at the VA then reviewed Chuck’s complete service record. They had already done so much earlier on a non-life-threatening issue.

On that issue they had determined that Chuck’s hearing loss in Honolulu was significantly attributable to his Korean War service as a mortar-section officer engaged in heavy combat when he was a fresh-out-of-college second lieutenant. So the VA sent him a small monthly sum as compensation.

A few days after learning of the heart abnormalities, the VA doctor called and told me that Chuck had a coronary heart disease. It was classified as an “ischemic heart disease” — one that so many Vietnam veterans had been diagnosed with that the VA presumed had been precipitated by the deadly Agent Orange.

“Did I want to file a claim?”

Definitely yes for Chuck’s irreversibly damaged heart. The VA settled that claim and determined Chuck was 50% disabled.

A Damaged Heart

So, in the decisive first step, the VA itself decided that Chuck’s exposure to Agent Orange led to his damaged heart. Yet, we all knew that VA doctors could not roll back the damage from Agent Orange, any more than any of us today can erase — to quote Board of Regents Chair Randy Moore — “injustices that have gone back 129 years” inflicted on Native Hawaiians.

In the second step, Chuck and I filed a claim arguing that his Agent-Orange-damaged heart was linked to his terminal illness, because the heart pumps blood, nutrients and oxygen from the head to the toes and also affects the nerves. By then Chuck had been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy — damaged nerves in his toes that contributed to his falls.

For that claim, we had to show that his damaged heart had “contributed to or aggravated” his terminal illness. How much evidence did the VA require?

Only that it was “more likely than not” that his damaged heart was linked adversely to his terminal illness. I calculated that meant only 50.01% more of our medical evidence against the VA’s often negative evaluations.

So, we gleaned evidence from doctors’ readings made during the six days Chuck spent in the emergency room and on the so-called “heart floor” of The Queen’s Medical Center in 2012, and submitted it in a notarized photocopy of its 283-page report.

I sensed that Chuck had been given a fair shake by the VA.

In the third step, if the “more likely than not” assessment was not clear-cut, the VA directed that the more favorable reading of the evidence should be tilted toward the aggrieved party — the veteran. For Chuck, the VA applied this benefit-of-the-doubt rule, “liberally and sympathetically” reviewed all evidence and evaluated him with an additional 30% disability.

Not long after that determination, Chuck passed away at the Spark M. Matsunaga VA Medical Center. His death certificate shows that his Agent Orange-damaged heart did indeed contribute to the terminal illness that caused his death.

Chuck died peacefully in my arms. We had such a blissful life together that I could not grieve his departure and his escape from suffering. I too felt at peace. Although no one could have prevented his death, I sensed that Chuck had been given a fair shake by the VA.

Thus ends the saga of fateful — even fatal — circumstances when compromise is not an option.

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About the Author

Beverly Deepe Keever

Beverly Deepe Keever is a professor emerita of the University of Hawaii and the author of “News Zero: The New York Times and The Bomb,” plus “Death Zones and Darling Spies: Seven Years of Vietnam War Reporting.”

Latest Comments (0)

While my heart grieves for Beverly Keever, this is such a much needed article. Such a valuable testimony to some of the new processes in place for Vets. One Vet in our family suffered greatly from Agent Orange, Both as a helicopter crew chief and a Long range Patrol Marine. He did not get the benefits described from the VA. He died without the benefits that would have changed his life.My brother is finally on 100% disability, at 70, after about 20 years of suffering excruciating pain, and long, polite, informed, compliant interactions with the VA. He should never have been forced to suffer after his many sacrifices, as a soldier and an Army brat.This information can be life altering to many Vets, and their families.Bravo.

Manawanui · 7 months ago

I'm confused. How does this VA experience relate to the TMT situation?

katshimata · 7 months ago

I am a retired military officer (no real combat) with a small disability. I am fortunate not to have had to deal much with the VA. I have two sons, each of whom were involved in extensive heavy combat. Both are 100% disabled according to the VA's criteria. One despises the VA and gets worse each time he has to access VA care. The other is fortunate to be able to pretty much avoid the VA. I'm glad Ms Keever had such a favorable experience with the VA. Unfortunately, that is not always the experience of many with very serious service related disabilities.

KaunoaKent · 7 months ago

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