FOSTER TWP. — At times Anthony Buonaiuto wanted to give up pursuing an Agent Orange disability claim connected to the year he spent in Vietnam as a U.S. Navy Seabee.
He contacted the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department in 1998 about his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis that he said was the result of his exposure to the defoliant.
It wasn’t until last December the 65-year-old Bronx native now living outside White Haven received word his claim was 100 percent service connected. In January he received his first monthly check for $2,832 to pay for his living expenses in the modest house he shares with his daughter Christina, 32.
The claim was for ischemic heart disease rather than multiple sclerosis, however. The VA maintained ongoing research indicates no link between MS and Agent Orange.
“It’s been an uphill battle all the way, ” Buonaiuto said last week, while seated in a motorized wheelchair at his kitchen table.
In front of him lay a quarter-inch stack of forms and letters, a sliver of the phone-book sized collection of correspondence with the VA he’s accumulated over the years.
“They’ll kill you with paperwork,” he said. “I believe their purpose is to discourage you.”
They didn’t and he wasn’t. Instead, he persisted out of anger against a government bureaucracy that had no record of his time overseas and has been mired in a backlog of cases new and old.
“The crowning achievement, the part that (angered) me the most, was when (the VA) told me, ‘Veteran cannot prove Vietnam service.’ What are you nuts? You gave me them medals,” he said, showing the ribbons and medals he’s mounted and framed.
Indeed, within the stack was a “Memorandum of Formal Finding on the Verification of Service within the Republic of Vietnam” dated Aug. 22, 2011 that said, “Shows there is no evidence of record to support service within the Republic of Vietnam.”
Through a Freedom of Information Act filing, Buonaiuto obtained information to verify his service, a “left-handed gift” in his words. He was a Navy veteran, but the U.S. Army had all the information he needed, he said.
Enlisted in 1967
Buonaiuto enlisted in 1967, went through basic training and in 1968 began a year with the Third Marine Division, 11th Engineering Battalion in Dong Ha Province. He worked at a rock crushing plant at Cau Viet, often times riding shotgun, literally with a weapon, on a truck.
“They have you down as a plumber,” he said. But he did other things when told. “‘OK. You’re a warm body, you’ll do whatever we need you to do,’ ” he said.
There he was exposed to Agent Orange , a clear, odorless defoliant used to clear the thick jungle, he said. Soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 325th Engineer Division sprayed it, boasted it would work in 24 hours and offered it to drink.
“They would assure you it was totally harmless,” he said. He recalled it felt cool to the skin on contact.
He was discharged in 1970 and worked as a plumber. A year or two later his right leg began to bother him. He didn’t pay any attention to the intermittent pain it caused because it was intermittent.
“You don’t go back to the VA,” he said of his reason for avoiding the agency. “I didn’t want anything to do with them — period.”
For 28 years he stayed away, finally making contact in 1998 after a doctor stunned him with the news that he had multiple sclerosis. He’d gotten progressively worse over the years, eventually going to work on crutches and with a cane. He suffered broken bones in an automobile accident and was sent by an attorney to a doctor who made the diagnosis, something others missed, he said.
The reception he received from the VA signaled the upcoming struggle he would face.
“This was a very, very unpopular war and they want to get rid of you and anybody else that had anything to do with it,” Buonaiuto said.
Back and forth went the correspondence, most of it disheartening. His frustration grew, but so did his resolve. All the while he kept track.
“I saved every paper I ever got, every bit of correspondence I ever got from the VA, because the VA kind of tends to say, ‘Oh, we didn’t say that.’
“I say, ‘You certainly did.’ And then when they find you have the paperwork to prove it. they don’t like that,” he said.
Randy Noller of the VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs said in an email Friday that privacy regulations prohibit discussions of a specific veteran’s claim. He suggested that Buonaiuto sign a release authorizing the VA to pull his file in order to discuss it.
Buonaiuto moved to Pennsylvania from Florida in 2010 into a handicapped-accessible house, a project of America Responds With Love Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides housing to people in emergency need of it.
A neighbor learned of his plight and suggested he contact his congressman.
He credited U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Scranton, and his staff with providing invaluable assistance. “They lead you the right way,” Buonaiuto said.
Having a senator intervene on his behalf put pressure on the VA, Buonaiuto surmised.
Casey was among the 67 senators who sent a letter to President Barack Obama last month urging him “to become personally involved and take direct action” to reduce the backlog of more than 600,000 veterans’ disability claims.” The average wait time for first-time claims ranges between 316 and 327 days, with longer waits in certain parts of the country, the senators wrote.
That same month the VA announced an initiative to eliminate the backlog by 2015 and said it was expediting compensation claims for veterans who have waited a year or longer.
Casey’s office also put Buonaiuto in touch with the Disabled American Veterans organization that aided in the effort to secure the service-connected claim.
Kerry Schimelfenig, who has since taken on a similar role as a department service officer with The American Legion, remembered working with Buonaiuto.
Many veterans don’t know how to go about the process of pursuing a claim or other benefits available to them. He compared it to the federal tax laws. The laws are on the books, but “trying to figure it out, you have to hire someone,” Schimelfenig said, who does not charge for his service.
Sadly, Buonaiuto’s case is not unique. Schimelfenig said there are “a multitude of vets that have similar circumstances to Anthony.”