Darrell Wick is one of thousands of veterans seeking claims from Department of Veterans Affairs related to illnesses caused by Agent Orange, and a growing local group is helping him.
From 1967-70, the Vietnam-era veteran served aboard the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier that operated off the coast of Vietnam and whose planes dropped the toxic defoliant chemical to destroy jungle vegetation.
However, because he served on a carrier, he is considered a “Blue Water Sailor” and one of 75,000 veterans who are not eligible for the benefits, he said. Many of these sailors are believed to have been exposed to the chemical as they served aboard the ships on station off the coast of Vietnam.
Wick is one of hundreds of local veterans who attend meetings of the Veterans Social Command, which gathers at Mercy Point Church on Rufus Street in Middletown.
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In late January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of those veterans to receive benefits, but the VA may appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Congress failed to pass legislation to address this issue in 2018 and in mid-January, new legislation has been introduced in Congress. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it would affect about 90,000 veterans and would cost about $1.1 billion over 10 years, according to Military.com.
Wick was an aviation storekeeper and also worked on pest control aboard the carrier. After he was discharged from the Navy, Wick worked at paper packaging factories in Middletown and in Franklin.
Wick said he used to wear his hair past his shoulders, but around 2003, his wife noticed a bald spot. He also said he fell down twice while working at the paper packaging factory. Wick said he had some tests done at the VA and is on six medications.
Dennis Kearns of Waynesville “emcees” the weekly meetings of the Veterans Social Command. Kearns said the group started meeting in a church in 2006 with less than 12 veterans meeting there for six years. After that, the small group started meeting in a member’s two-car garage when the group outgrew it with 25 members. He said from there they started meeting at the VA Clinic’s conference room before outgrowing that in about four months with 90 members.
Someone offered a church in January 2016 and has grown to more than 430 members.
“We’re veterans helping veterans with their claims to the VA,” Kearns said. “We’ve grown because we’re a social group and not a club.”
Many of the veterans come for the camaraderie, and Kearns said there are some who actually served together while in the military.
A majority of the veterans are from the Vietnam era and are still proud of their service as they wear various caps representing the different branches. Some of the caps are adorned with pins of the awards and decorations they received.
Kearns said the organization has no officers, and it doesn’t collects dues. However, donations are made to the church for their meetings, and once a month, the church provides lunch for them.
The group also works with widows and others who seek assistance in obtaining VA benefits. One member is a retired claims employee of the VA who helps people through the bureaucratic maze to obtain benefits.