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David Houppert and Tom Berger

Navy veterans David Houppert and Tom Berger are worried.

As Director of Veterans Benefits and Executive Director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), respectively, they are experts in their fields.

They know that countless American veterans have a chronic illness or long-term disability as a result of their military service. They know that many of these veterans—especially those from the wars in Viet Nam and the Persian Gulf—do not associate their condition with military service and have no idea that they, and their families, are entitled to medical treatment or compensation from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

David and Tom also know that children of many veterans are ill or disabled because of parental exposure to toxic substances during military service. They know that there has been a surge in claims for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from veterans of the wars in Korea and Viet Nam. They know that more than 500,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have sought treatment from a VA medical facility—an average of about 9,000 new patients each month. Beyond that, they know that about eighty percent of veterans do not draw upon VA facilities for medical care.

They also know that the cost of caring for veterans or their family members is substantial and long term, and yet has never been included in any national defense budget.

And they know that most of us—including doctors, government officials, and the voting public—do not know what David and Tom know. And that worries them, too.

So they, and VVA, work to inform veterans and their families about health care and VA benefits, and to educate Congress, medical professionals, and the general public about the complicated and difficult realities veterans face. They share important information in their conversation here.

Recorded at VVA national headquarters, Silver Spring, Maryland, March 2009.

Hazardous to your health

"If you served in-country in Viet Nam, it's presumed that you came into contact with Agent Orange. Agent Orange has some nasty little ingredients in it, which lead to a number of diseases. And if you come down with these diseases, either within a certain amount of time after leaving Viet Nam or any time in your life again, you're eligible for health care and compensation. And two of the big ones we see are prostate cancer, diabetes type 2. And it's actually been recognized by the government that Agent Orange is so bad, some offspring of veterans are eligible for birth defects."

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The three VAs

"It's not at all uncommon for an individual to seek care and treatment at the VA for two or three, four years, but no one on the VHA [Veterans Health Care Administration] side of the house tells the veteran they may be eligible for benefits. And in a lot of situations, the VHA physicians don't know. They're not trained on that. They don't understand the system, and they don't always realize that they could refer the veteran to file a claim and receive their compensation."

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Traumatic brain injury (TBI)

"TBI is the most costly, long-term kind of injury that can be suffered, whether it be in the civilian world or in the military world. It takes a team of people to work with folks who have severe brain injury. There aren't very many clinical social workers who specialize in brain injuries—traumatic brain injuries, in particular. So the American public should have some concern about this. What are we going to be doing with these veterans twenty years down the line?"

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[David Houppert and Tom Berger]

David Houppert

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