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Area veteran battling VA over covering Agent Orange-related health problems

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Charles Phillip Jestus, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, poses Tuesday with his dog Angel at his home in Cape Girardeau. Jestus suffers from various medical problems due to Agent Orange exposure.
(Kristin Eberts) [Order this photo]
Charles Phillip Jestus worked, ate and slept in the stench and horror of war, somewhere between Khe Sanh and hell.

The Vietnam vet spent 13 months in 1968 and 1969 supplying helicopters and troops at a landing strip in the valley village of Ca Lu. He would see things -- death, dying, suffering, fear, degradations and debasements -- unimaginable to all but those who have lived in the carnage of war.

But Jestus, unlike nearly a quarter-million of his brethren in arms, left Vietnam without a scratch.

It wasn't until he got home that the hurting would begin.

Jestus is among several veterans who in recent weeks have shared with the Southeast Missourian their concerns and accusations about the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, a system they assert is riddled with incompetence and in bureaucracy. The 63-year-old Cape Girardeau resident approached the Southeast Missourian following a recent series on Lucky Sands, a decorated veteran of the war in Iraq who died in February 2010 following a long illness. Sands' family and friends are critical of her care and treatment in the VA system, particularly at hospitals in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and St. Louis.

After the VA certified Jestus' full disability coverage for serious health problems caused by his exposure to the deadly chemical Agent Orange in Vietnam, he says he has accrued tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, many of which the VA has refused to cover. While he acknowledges being treated outside the VA health care system, which can affect VA coverage, Jestus said his treatment involved emergency care, leaving him little choice.

He claims the VA health system at times has complicated his medical condition with overcrowded facilities, uncaring health care providers and a "chain of command" system of paperwork that has left him buried under a mountain of debt and mental stress.

"Am I supposed to be a pingpong ball going back and forth until I die?" Jestus said.

Cases like Jestus' have angered and frustrated U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who says she has heard from hundreds of veterans struggling under the bureaucracy of a VA health care system that she believes is in need of a massive overhaul.

Charles Phillip Jestus was 18 when he joined the U.S. Army in 1966. He served his first tour in Korea, quickly rising to sergeant.

In 1968, when his first hitch was up, he re-enlisted, eager to serve in Vietnam. He would soon lose his youthful exuberance for a conflict that was taking a toll on service members in country and at home, and on a nation growing weary of war.

Jestus was stationed at a place called LZ -- or Landing Zone -- Vandegrift, named after the 18th commandant of the Marine Corps and Medal of Honor winner, Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift. Originally billed as LZ stud, the combat base, reminiscent of a hobo camp from the air, served as a jumping-off point for operations to open the path leading to Khe Sanh. Jestus' unit supplied helicopters at the landing strip, resupplying Army units on search-and-destroy missions.

When Jestus arrived, Vandegrift was nothing more than an airstrip surrounded by mud, dirt and lush jungle. Housing at first was nothing more than a ditch, buttressed by sandbags.

When the airstrikes hit -- and they hit frequently -- 15 soldiers would pile together in a bunker built for three, Jestus said.

He says he has buried the horrors of that tour, but they burst through with brutal clarity at times, like waking nightmares. He describes the violent scenes: A good friend and fellow soldier standing across the compound one moment; then the explosion, the ground rumbling, and all that remained were legs; there were the Viet Cong dead, mounted like trophies on the Army tanks as they passed through; the choppers carrying troops flying in, or worse, troops on their way home, exploding on the landing pad or in the Vietnam skies above.

But every day at 7 p.m. -- you could set your watch by it -- there was "Mad Minute."

"We would shoot and fire everything we had up into the hills, constantly. Big guns. Rifles. Pistols. The ground would jump up," he said.

Jestus survived it all. He wore a crucifix, the one he now keeps in a lockbox. He said he felt blessed by God.

His military dreams, however, were over. Jestus said he had planned to make a career in the Army. Vietnam changed that.

"That wiped everything out. My whole life was wiped out," he said. "It was 13 months of hell. I came home a different person."

But his war was just beginning at home.

Jestus left Vietnam in 1969, like so many of his comrades, believing he was returning a hero. He stepped off the plane in Seattle to a crowd of angry protesters. The war at home was heating up.

"I was called a 'baby killer' and 'murderer,'" Jestus said. "One girl, I'll never forget her, she had long hair, she came up and spit on me and called me 'murderer.'"

He tried to put the war out of his mind. But it's always there, waiting, underneath it all. And the frightening memories flashback in sounds and smells -- fireworks on the Fourth of July, smoke in summertime.

His health, Jestus said, was perfect for a long time. He worked in the floral business, got on with his life and didn't have any real complaints until he turned 50. That's when the diabetes showed up. By 2006, his health was deteriorating rapidly. He was diagnosed with diabetic nephropathy associated with diabetes mellitus Type II, a related kidney disease, and peripheral neuropathy of the lower extremities, which causes pain, loss of sensation and an inability to control muscles.

In 2006, the VA awarded Jestus full disability compensation for his medical conditions, considered to be caused during his service in Vietnam. And the presumed cause of it all, according to VA medical records obtained by the Southeast Missourian, was Agent Orange.

Agent Orange wasn't really orange at all. It was white and came in powder form before being sprayed over the vast vegetation that made up the hills and valleys of Vietnam between 1961 and 1971. The name was derived from the orange stripe used on the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored. The chemical was produced to defoliate the trees providing enemy cover, and it worked remarkably well. And it was everywhere.

"There were many times that your boots were covered in this stuff. Your clothes were covered and you breathed it in every day," Jestus said. "The helicopter blades were whipping up the dust, and my bunker was right off the strip."

Jestus said he didn't think anything of it. The chemical was a curiosity when reports about its detrimental effects first surfaced in the 1970s and 1980s. It became worrisome when his health began to decline, and worry turned into fear when several of his classmates who served in Vietnam began dying from the effects of Agent Orange.

When he first sought medical care through the VA health system, Jestus said, he experienced superb care and had no complaints. His bills were paid through VA and Medicare, and he received full disability, including Social Security.

Things changed, Jestus said, in spring 2008, when he had a massive heart attack. He was rushed to Southeast Hospital and spent time in the intensive care unit. He said he was stabilized and cleared for release on Memorial Day weekend for an Army medal presentation in his honor. After the ceremony, he was hospitalized and underwent quadruple bypass surgery.

Jestus said the VA would not cover the cost of his medical bills because he wasn't treated in a VA-approved health care center. By protocol, Jestus was supposed to contact Veterans Affairs "as soon as possible" about his treatment. He said that's a tall order when you're in your underwear, incapacitated and in the back of an ambulance.

"Am I supposed to tell the ambulance driver to call St. Louis, 'I'm in the back of this ambulance, can I go to the hospital?'"

At one point, Jestus said, he was on his way to St. Louis for a scheduled appointment approved by the VA and had a heart attack on his way into the hospital, a private health care provider.

"I was admitted, by no choice of my own, and the VA said the bill was to be denied because it was not an approved admission," Jestus wrote in a letter to Emerson. "Another stipulation of the VA rules say that once stabilized, the Veteran should be transferred to St. Louis VA or Memphis VA for further treatment. Why should we have to leave the local area to receive the care needed when it is available locally also?"

In a written response to Emerson, Glenn Costie, medical center director of John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, Mo., said bills for emergency treatment may be considered for payment by VA under the Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act.

"Under this authority, the services must be of an emergent nature, meaning the injury or illness is so severe that without immediate treatment the injury or illness threatens health or life, and the Veteran has no other coverage under a health plan that would pay in whole or in part for the emergency treatment," Costie wrote. He said the VA Medical Center should be notified, preferably within 72 hours, to arrange a suitable care plan, and provide billing information.

While Emerson said she can't comment specifically on any particular case, the Cape Girardeau Republican said she thinks it's "crazy" that veterans must often seek treatment so far from home in order to remain in a VA system, a system that has been criticized for its medical shortcomings. She said a constituent, a World War II veteran, had to go to St. Louis for chemotherapy treatments, hours from his home.

"It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life," she said. "I have intervened in some of those cases. I say, 'This is ridiculous. Let's get them closer to home and reimburse the private practitioners.'"

Emerson said she believes the entire VA health care system needs a "wholesale revamping" and that she's working with fellow House members to set up congressional hearings on the matter.

"I think it's a very cumbersome system, and we need to have somebody outside the system to look at it," she said.

Jestus also has been critical about the quality of care at VA hospitals like John Cochran Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis, where he said he was placed as a cardiac patient in a recovery room with "loud, obnoxious alcoholics and drug addicts."

In a letter to Emerson, a hospital administrator acknowledged the space constraints at the hospital.

"We strive to place patients in a comfortable environment. He was on 7 North, which is a busy telemetry ward, full to capacity on most days. We are limited by the number of Veterans requiring cardiac care," the letter says. The administrator goes on to say that medical center has plans to add 12 beds on 7 South, a medical ward.

"We apologize that Mr. Jestus' needs were not met to his satisfaction," the administrator wrote.

The Southeast Missourian attempted to contact the VA hospital in Poplar Bluff. Jestus was advised to send the facility a medical waiver, clearing administrators to speak to his case. He did but did not date the document. Late Tuesday afternoon an official with the health care center said administrators could not talk about Jestus' case because he did not date the form.

For now, Jestus waits for medical reimbursement. He has a stack of private health care provider bills he says tops $287,000. The VA, in correspondence to Jestus, says it is still processing his application for compensation. In a letter dated Jan. 10, the VA apologizes for the delay.

Jestus said his basic bills are met through the $3,730 in monthly VA disability and Social Security checks, but the mounting hospital bills are beginning to drag down his credit. He worries he could lose the home he has lived in for 25 years.

In his letter to Emerson, Jestus complains that the process for veterans to obtain medical care is too long, filled with too many obstructions and that the care often is substandard compared to civilian health systems. He said there has to be a better way.

"We were willing to put our life on the line in service to our country. We should now be able to receive the medical care that we need without all the hassles and without jumping through unnecessary hoops," Jestus wrote. "I shouldn't have to fight with VA to get the quality care that I deserve in exchange for my service to this country."



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This is how the government runs health care with respect to veterans. Can any of us really imagine how an ever-increasing "guiding hand" of the federal government can affect our lives?

-- Posted by casual_observer1 on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 1:47 AM

My friend Phil has had nothing but health problems he was in the military and is a disabled vet who trys to make the best of what he has after losing his mother and himself trying to keep his health but he is a great friend you could ever ask for! He is always there if you need someone to talk to and is a great person who loves his country and friends and family and his dog and I just wish him the best!

-- Posted by capeguy30 on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 3:06 AM

Yep! Phil's a great guy. Sorry to hear he is still having trouble. I know he donates what little energy he has left at the Safehouse thrift shop in Cape (great place with great people!). I wish him the best and hope he does start feeling better.

-- Posted by Kiss Me Kate on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 7:14 AM

An observation...collectively--Sands, Shank, this article--it would appear the media and state paid representation are being used as leverage for individual financial gain.

I do not like that trend. Hire a mediator or attorney.

-- Posted by ho ho ho on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 8:33 AM


Here's my observation...

Yours falls somewhere between ridiculous and outright insane. "Individual financial gain"!? The man has $300K in medical bills! Bills that by all rights should be covered by the VA, but due to the endless red tape and slow pace of government assistance, he'll have them hanging over his head for the unseeable future. What a way to live, huh?

And Lucky? How sadly ironic that name is, I can't even begin to imagine how her family must have felt watching her slowly slipping away.

I have many friends that have served in Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq, and they all say the same thing. The VA is a joke. It is cumbersome system that failed to keep up with the times and the added burden of an aging population of veterans.

It hasn't been that long ago we got to see how the VA really operates. Remember Marion IL VA?

'nuf said...

-- Posted by ol'homeboy on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 12:40 PM

If this is a universal VA problem, what makes these "select" few special or newsworthy? The Shank case, which I mentioned, was not military or VA in nature.

It is not fair for a FEW to leverage the media and elected representatives to mount their individual cases for their individual financial gain. There are procedures designed to resolve issues like these and if that fails, we have they court system.

More folks out there managing $300,000 (or more)medical bills--who may feel some sort of injustice has taken place--than you may realize. Should each of them contact the media and our elected officials to help resolve their personal financial and health problems?

Solving INDIVIDUAL problems is not what I want my elected officials (aka tax dollars) focused on.

-- Posted by ho ho ho on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 12:57 PM

My mom was an RN-she always said the VA was a bad place care-wise/staff-wise. She had nothing but contempt for the qualityof care given there (in Poplar Bluff ( and, in Leavenworth where she worked). This was over 50 years ago when she voiced this opinion...

-- Posted by Bearcat66 on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 1:00 PM

I agree that the VA is a joke! My father died in Poplar Bluff VA hospital in 1972. If he had gone to a civilian hospital I believe that he would have lived longer.

-- Posted by Hookie98 on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 1:20 PM

There you go again with that "individual financial gain" crap! Give it a rest already! They want their medical bills paid. Paid for by the country they unselfishly served. What is wrong with that? So what if they chose to speak to their elected officials or the media about their problems with the VA. Elected officials work for EVERYBODY. Whether it be a veteran, or a group of people , or a whole district. That's what they are there for. To represent US. And I'd suspect those folks you talk about with their own $300K debt have insurance and it paid the greatest portion of that.

Until you have walked in these peoples shoes, you cannot say you wouldn't do the same in their situation.

-- Posted by ol'homeboy on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 1:24 PM

One more point, it would be one thing if these folks contacted their representation (and the media) for testimony to the overall VA care problem to be addressed by the state without expectation of individual gain. (In that case, I would have expressed compassion and gratitude for the courage of sharing their story.)

However, that is NOT how I read this or read Lucky's story. They both were clearly seeking their individual health-care cost resolved, despite both admitting to not following the known guidelines--treatment in other medical facilities without approval. When they made that choice, they were (or should have been) very aware of consequencial red-tape that would follow.

Regarding the Shank case, the media was used to manipulate public opinion to pressure an ignorance of a long standing precident--no double indemnity--insurance company should always be reinbursed first in personal injury lawsuit cases. Shank family received double compensation for the injuries--insurance company and the trucking company.

Why is that important? It will impact everyone's future insurance rates. One should not collect on the same claim twice. If the Shank-Walmart precendent stands, it would encourage even more fraudulent claims.

-- Posted by ho ho ho on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 1:24 PM

ol'homeboy, I consider seeking UNcovered medical bills to be paid by the VA "individual financial gain".

Elected officials responsibility is to establish rules for society's greater good, not to resolve an individual concerns.

We obviously disagree and that is okay.

-- Posted by ho ho ho on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 1:32 PM

Anything a vet suffers medically that can be traced back to their service of their country should be paid no questions asked.

And yeah...We SO disagree! You can thank Phil and thousands of other veterans for your right to have an opinion you can share without fear of reprisal from your government.

-- Posted by ol'homeboy on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 1:40 PM

I have been doctoring with the VA for about 7 years now and I have had the best of care. I am in Wisconsin and go to Tomah for routiene care and Madison for CLL, Asbestosis, and Corinary Diease. And to date they have been great. The facilities are both adiquate and being remodeled in the present.

-- Posted by MK1048 on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 2:21 PM

i share your pain and experiences to the letter...jd

-- Posted by phoenix22 on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 4:00 PM

Platitude, you are so wrong. This is not necessarily about individual gain. If this system is changed for the better, can you imagine how many others will benefit? I know a few vets who all agree that the VA gives everyone the run around. One instance was where a soldier broke his legs so badly, he had to be stabilized and transported back for medical leave for surgeries to repair the damage. Someone initially reported to the VA that he broke one leg when it was the other and because of this they refused reimbursement. The VA needs to be fixed and this is a dam good way to do it. Don't take that away from this man, or any others. Climb on your bandwagon like we know you're good at and take it somewhere else.

-- Posted by PMA_Ranch on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 6:28 PM

As a veteran who recieves care at the VA in Poplar Bluff, i can speak with factual knowledge on this subject unlike all the people posting stories that they have heard about the treatment and "red tape" of the VA. For starters, i have been treated at the VA for years and it has been nothing short of quality care. i am sure that some have had bad experiences, as you would in any medical facility.

As far as this veteran, lets get real. He acknowledges himself that he did follow proper procedures to have his outside care paid for by the VA. Guess what... there are rules, period. You dont follow them, they dont get paid. I know people will think i should be on the Veteran's side, and i would be if he was in the right. This guy clearly didnt follow the rules and wanted to jump on the "boo-hoo, the VA treated me wrong" bandwagon to try get his bill paid for. I am ashamed, as a Vet, that he took the route of going to the paper with this story knowing he didnt follow the rules. It is clear that he has forgotten his military code of ethics.

-- Posted by flashsuppressor on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 9:10 PM

I agree with flashsuppressor, finally someone who truly understand and knows what they are speaking about. I am a Veteran also, and this guy is full of crap, he brought this on himself; and is using the media to stir the innocent to fight his fight. A fight he started, I agree all VA are not the best, but neither are civilian medical facilities they are flawed also. Stop believing everything you read in the papers, there is normally more to the story. God Bless

-- Posted by ghostbuster#178 on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 11:06 PM

I agree with flashsuppressor, finally someone who truly understand and knows what they are speaking about. I am a Veteran also, and this guy is full of crap, he brought this on himself; and is using the media to stir the innocent to fight his fight. A fight he started, I agree all VA are not the best, but neither are civilian medical facilities they are flawed also. Stop believing everything you read in the papers, there is normally more to the story. God Bless

-- Posted by ghostbuster#178 on Wed, Mar 2, 2011, at 11:07 PM

I don't understand why he isn't getting what he needs as far as Agent Orange. I knew a woman who lived near an AFB and her husband got the best care (they lived off base) and money and so why is this man having trouble for getting care and benefits for Agent Orange problems? Why do some Vets get everything and others nothing? If you have a serious condition what are you suppose to do until you get help. Following rules is fine if you have the time and wherewithall to do it but when you are ill its more difficult.

-- Posted by ArcticFox on Thu, Mar 3, 2011, at 2:32 PM

So many Nam Vets have had to deal with problems with getting help from the VA.

Is this why some of us are told there are no medical records from our tour of Vietnam?

-- Posted by NamTanker on Wed, Mar 9, 2011, at 7:05 AM

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