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Widow wins VA claim 24 years after filing

May. 29, 2014 - 04:19PM   |  
Army infantryman Ronald McNutt, shown during his Vietnam deployment in 1968-69, died at age 39 of cancer caused by Agent Orange. His widow recently won a 24-year battle with VA over compensation for her husband's death.
Army infantryman Ronald McNutt, shown during his Vietnam deployment in 1968-69, died at age 39 of cancer caused by Agent Orange. His widow recently won a 24-year battle with VA over compensation for her husband's death. (Courtesy of Bettye McNutt)
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Three weeks before 39-year-old Ronald McNutt died of cancer in 1987, he began talking about his military service in Vietnam with his wife, Bettye. The former soldier recalled swimming in rivers contaminated with runoff from Agent Orange and cooking on makeshift grills cobbled from the drums that had held the toxic herbicide.

Bettye McNutt had never heard of Agent Orange, and she didn’t understand why Ronald was sharing these stories. But months after he passed away, she began digging into the subject, and armed with research — and a diary detailing her husband’s war service — she filed a service-related dependency and indemnity compensation claim.

That was May 19, 1990.

On May 7, 2014, as McNutt was driving near her Olive Branch, Mississippi, home, she got a call from her attorney, who had startling news: After seven denials and appeals, having been told by Veterans Affairs Department officials that her husband’s cancer was not caused by Agent Orange and 24 years of struggling to provide for herself and the couple’s only son, the VA Board of Veterans Appeals had approved her claim.

When she was read the board’s conclusion, that Ronald McNutt’s condition was “caused directly, not presumptively, by exposure to Agent Orange,” she wept.

“When I think of all the things I went through ... I finally feel relief. I’ve been in survival mode for so long, it’s going to take me a while for it to sink in,” Bettye McNutt said.

McNutt’s case is likely not the longest pending veteran’s claim, but the widow, who testified last December before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee about VA’s disability claims backlog, said she came forward to call attention to long-standing problems with the claims system.

“Dealing with the VA is a game of nerves,” McNutt said. “What I’d like to say to others is: ‘Don’t accept the denial. Keep on.’ ”

McNutt said that after her husband’s death, her son suffered from severe emotional grief and nightmares and they struggled for years in poverty, sometimes going without power or heat because she couldn’t pay the bills. She said she often relied on the kindness of friends to make sure she and her son had food.

Now she is set to receive compensation from VA — $1,000 for each of the 288 months that have passed since she filed her initial claim in 1990.

She said the fight was about justice for her own family as well as other Agent Orange victims. But she candidly acknowledges that she’s also looking forward to no longer worrying about whether she will lose her job.

“I can drive a car that has less than 250,000 miles and I can go home without worrying about having the utilities cut off,” said McNutt, now 69.

She waged much of her claims fight on her own, but decided to seek the help of an attorney about four years ago. Attorney Glenn Bergmann said after the ruling it had been “an honor” to help McNutt.

“VA finally agreed with the clear medical evidence that toxic exposure to Agent Orange in 1968 and 1969, while serving in the Army in Vietnam caused Ronald McNutt’s tragic and early death from colon cancer,” Bergmann said. “This case should serve as an example to other veterans and survivors to never give up the fight.”

In a response to questions on the case, VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz cited a speech President Abraham Lincoln gave in 1865.

“Lincoln delivered his prescription for our nations’ recovery, including, ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan. ...’ Lincoln’s words became the VA’s official motto in 1959,” Lutz said.

In March, the VA’s claims backlog hovered around 368,000 cases, down from a peak of 611,000 in late March 2013. The department has pledged to eradicate its backlog of claims older than 125 days by the end of 2015.

VA officials have blamed more complex cases and a 2010 major revision in Agent Orange-related claims for the rise in the backlog.

But they also credit improved technology, new processing techniques and mandatory overtime for claims processors in in helping drive down the backlog total.

Staff writer Leo Shane III contributed to this report.

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