The wording on the Department of Veterans Affairs website could not be any clearer:

"Veterans who develop prostate cancer and were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service do not have to prove a connection between their prostate cancer and military service to receive VA health care and disability compensation."

Pleasanton resident John Pestana, a 22-year Coast Guard veteran, did two tours of duty during the Vietnam War, navigating inland waters polluted with the Agent Orange runoff. Later, he contracted prostate cancer.

So why is he still waiting, seven years after filing a claim, for the benefits to which he is entitled?

Inexcusable delays, improper denials and systemic mismanagement have become so common with the VA that it's difficult to be shocked anymore. But Pestana's experience demonstrates how tone-deaf the agency can be.

VA officials first questioned whether the Coast Guard even participated in the Vietnam War. Pestana explained the Coast Guard was there under orders from the Navy to clear channels and mark navigational obstructions.

Officials then demanded proof that he was in areas affected by Agent Orange. Pestana, on his own time and at his own expense, located copies of ship's logs showing where he was stationed and when he was there. Officials demanded proof that he contracted the disease. He got documentation from doctors. He was told to visit the VA hospital in Palo Alto for an examination, which he did.


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Pestana has documented every step of this journey, with a bulging binder as proof. At one point, he was told he'd be receiving benefits. He never did, so he appealed. Later, he was informed by mail that he'd been denied because his condition -- peripheral neuropathy -- was not covered. That would be amusing if it weren't so absurd.

His peripheral neuropathy -- impairment of the sensory nerves -- was caused by extensive chemotherapy treatments, which were made necessary by his prostate cancer, which brings us back to that crystal-clear statement on the VA website.

Pestana, 78, said he is unable to fully empty his bladder, urinates 12 to 18 times a day, sometimes loses control of his bowels and must wear a diaper when away from home.

"He's hurting," said his wife Ann. "He's really going downhill."

This week, however, he was given a flicker of hope. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, a champion of veterans benefits who's been seeking a resolution of Pestana's case, received word that his constituent can expect to receive approval for a 50-percent disability claim (about $900 per month) and retroactive pay to 2007.

Excuse Pestana for not celebrating until the check is in his hands.

Why 50 percent? Only those familiar with the vagaries of the VA rating system can explain. Why such a long wait? That's simpler: The VA is a massive, unwieldy bureaucracy with outdated technology that's poorly managed.

"It should never take this long," said Swalwell, whose good-news phone call to Pestana resonated for a different reason.

"Mr. Pestana started apologizing to me for being so persistent. I said, 'You shouldn't apologize to me. I'm apologizing to you. This system put you in this situation.' No veteran should have to apologize for doing everything he can to get what he is owed."

The congressman can empathize. He has about 300 similar cases on his desk for which he is seeking resolution.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.