On Monday, News 4 brought you Part 1 of the two-part series, Vietnam Veterans: Fighting For Care. We revisited the Vietnam War, what our combat troops were exposed to and and how they were treated when they returned home.
In Part 2, we take a look at how this generation, which now makes up more than half the VA claims in Nevada, is falling through the cracks. Ken Anderson, a Marine during the War, was exposed to Agent Orange during his tour of duty.
RENO, Nev. (MyNews4.com & KRNV) -- "I hate when that happens."
Simply fixing his American flag is enough to take the wind out of Marine Veteran Ken Anderson. "I'm on 24/7 oxygen, 5 L stationary, 6 L ambulatory. That's a lot of oxygen just to be able to walk out to my car or something. I take six different prescriptions."
Ken served with a Marine Air Support Unit in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. During his time in combat, he was exposed to the carnage of war, as well as the Agent Orange herbicide used to thin the Vietnamese jungle.
"We didn't know what Agent Orange was until we got back to the States and started hearing about it," said Anderson. "They didn't tell us what they were doing with this."
After the war was over, Ken stayed in the Marines until 1972, and eventually moved to Tucson where his medical needs were covered by the Southern Arizona VA Healthcare System. In 2009, he moved to Sparks to be closer to family as his health condition declined.
Shortly after he came back to Nevada, Ken was amditted to the Sierra Nevada VA Hospital in Reno. "My primary care physician, who is a great guy and I'm glad I have him, determined in his initial screening that I had Agent Orange symptom diseases, and he said, 'Okay, we're going to track them for six months and see what happens.'"
After six months, Ken went back to his doctor at the VA hospital, and was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and Scanic Heart Disease. "These symptoms were getting very much worse, so he attempted to get me into see hematology or oncology, and nothing happened. I was never called for an appointment, and this went on from 2009 until 2012, and I kept getting progressively worse."
"I never had to wait for an appointment in Tucson. If I had a problem, I could call up get in see someone, and they established what were called satellite clinics."
With a heartrate of under 30 beats per minute, his doctor determined he needed a pacemaker. But the operation did not happen at the Reno VA hospital. It was preformed inside the ER at Renown Regional Medical Center before the VA could schedule the surgery.
"When you are told flat-out you need help or you're going to die, they did not mince words. I was told that by a number of people and ultimately when the Renown physicians wrote back to the VA, that's when somebody decided there might be something to this."
"That's very frustrating, irritating."
Like some veterans battling the VA system, Ken's life is now documented inside a folder, where he keeps denial letters, and decisions from the Regional Office to change his monthly disability payment. "I received a modest sum last month, and was told that's all, period, you're maxed out, you're not getting anything else. We don't care that you haven't been cured yet. This $3,000 per month or whatever it is, disability pension, you're not going to get it, period."
Nevada Senator Dean Heller called for the resignation of the Reno VA Regional Benefits Administration Director Ed Russell in June, after an audit showed major mistakes were made in handling cases the VA deemed challenging or high risk. Heller said one of the major hurdles facing Vietnam veterans is a result of the way some handled their discharge.
"It is tough," said Heller. "I know in my discussions with these veterans, they were just ready to get out. They didn't fill out the paperwork. They were out of war, they wanted to get back to work, they wanted to get jobs, they wanted to start families, the last thing they wanted to do was look back. They wanted to look forward. And in most cases, they didn't fill out the proper paperwork to get that done."
"They were willing to do anything and everything asked of them, and we should be willing to do anything and everything for them."
Retired Army Pilot Mike Billow flew combat missions inside a Cobra Helicopter during Vietnam. After the war, he chose to stay in and saw what happened to many of the veterans who left the serivce to try and get back into civilian life.
"An awful lot of them said, 'I don't want anything to do with this anymore. I don't want to talk about it, do anything about it.' They didn't go seek help from the VA when the VA help was there."
According to the Reno VA Hospital, 65% of the patients they see are Vietnam-era Veterans. After speaking with Darin Farr from the Sierra Nevada VA hospital regarding Ken's case, Farr said little information could be provided due to patient confidentiality laws. But the VA did say since 2012, major changes have been implemented to improve wait times and performance, and more is being done to improve communication between VA healthcare providers and the veterans they serve.
Calls to the Reno VA Regional Benefits Office regarding this story were never returned."
"I came that close," said Anderson. "They told me a number of times, if something isn't done for this guy, he's dead. If he even catches so much as a cold, he's gone."
Ken said he knows in his heart, other veternas waiting for care, have not been as lucky.
"I thank the man upstairs several times a day for being here."
If you are a veteran or know a veteran who needs help getting through the red tape of the VA process, Senator Heller said his staff at his Reno office are ready to standby and guide veterans through the process of filing and tracking claims. Their phone number is 775-686-5770.
The bottom line is don't do it alone. Find a veteran's advocate.
Mike Billow and Ken Anderson said the care they receive at the VA hospital is exceptional, and they appreciate the caring doctors and nurses who have helped treat them in the past.