Jessiah Smith doesn't see their faces, but he hears their stories.
Smith, VA Pittsburgh's environmental health registrar, screens Veterans for their eligibility and possible inclusion on the VA's Agent Orange Registry.
"I hear Veterans' concerns, such as 'why do I have this rash,' and other medical problems," Smith says. "They'll describe to me their health conditions and want to know if their illness was caused by Agent Orange."
Smith has been busy fielding calls from Veterans since last fall, when the VA added Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease and B-cell leukemia to the illnesses presumed to be due to exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used during the Vietnam War. These conditions are eligible for health care and disability compensation benefits.
The VA resolved 28,000 claims for exposure in the first six weeks after the three new conditions were included, as part of a general effort to make sure new Agent Orange claims are processed in a timely fashion. For many of these Veterans, seeking information about the herbicide is their first contact with the VA.
To Smith, the registry is more than just a list of names: It's about advocating for Veterans who need help — and teaching them how the VA process works.
"There's a lot of misinformation about Agent Orange and how a Veteran goes about receiving compensation and health benefits due to their exposure," says Smith, who receives most of his referrals from a national toll-free number, 1-800-749-8387.
If an individual is eligible, Smith schedules an appointment for a free exam with a clinician experienced in recognizing the 14 health conditions related to dioxin exposure. Veterans diagnosed with a condition tied to Agent Orange can file a claim for that illness. Once they are on the registry, their VA medical records will reflect that status, aiding physicians in treating them for future conditions possibly resulting from exposure.
Veterans on the registry also receive the Agent Orange Review, a newsletter with the latest information on the VA's efforts to process claims and practical information on living with exposure symptoms.
In addition to Agent Orange, Smith administers the Gulf War, Ionizing Radiation and Depleted Uranium registries. Local Veterans can reach him at 412-822-1139.