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Adelphi University hosting meeting on vets’ health challenges

Vietnam War vet Walter Schmidt, 69, the director

Vietnam War vet Walter Schmidt, 69, the director of Veterans Services for the Town of Oyster Bay, will attend a meeting at Adelphi University to address health issues of Long Island military vets. Credit: Barry Sloan

On Friday morning, Walter Schmidt used his one working limb to coax a bit of softened breakfast cereal onto an oversized spoon, then guide it to his mouth.

It is not the way he anticipated life would be for him, a man not yet 70 but battling afflictions often associated with men 10 or 20 years older.

But as America’s Vietnam veterans approach their mid-to-late 60s and 70s, such is the lot for an increasing number of them.

“We’re getting all kinds of ailments associated with old age,” said Schmidt, 69, who served two years in Vietnam aboard a Navy river boat, beginning in 1967.

Schmidt, who must use a wheelchair, said he now has heart disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

“We have defibrillators, we’re losing our limbs due to type 2 diabetes,” he said. “I’m seeing Vietnam veteran after Vietnam veteran with geriatric diseases, with memory loss.”

Tuesday, Schmidt, director of Veterans Services for the Town of Oyster Bay, will be among veterans, health advocates and care providers who will meet at Adelphi University to examine the needs of Long Island’s roughly 125,000 veterans, and to share ideas for how to care for them. Organizers expect about 180 veterans, family members and health officials to attend. Registration has closed.

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“There is a sea change taking place, with Vietnam veterans in their mid- and upper 60s becoming our new older veterans,” said John Javis, chairman of the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island. “We suspect they are breaking down faster than other generations.”

There are about 73,000 veterans in Suffolk and another 52,000 in Nassau, according to estimates provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of them, about half are at least 65.

Virtually all of the roughly 2.7 million American men and women who served in Vietnam are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides after the U.S. military sprayed more than 19 million gallons of the chemicals to deny forest cover to enemy fighters.

Agent Orange poisoning has been linked to a host of crippling and often-deadly maladies, including various cancers, type 2 diabetes, heart problems, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.

Studies released in the 1980s showed that Vietnam veterans were actually healthier than their non-veteran counterparts, said Dr. Victoria Davey, an epidemiologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Davey is organizing a new VA study to explore whether their Vietnam service is now beginning to exact a toll among Vietnam veterans earlier than their civilian counterparts.

“From some studies and certainly from input from Vietnam veterans themselves, we are concerned that they may have more of certain diseases,” Davey said. “Hepatitis C is one, for example, and we have some concerns for Parkinson’s, stroke, dementia. There are small studies that lead us to hypothesize we might see more of these.”

Davey said results of the planned study, which will compare the health experiences of 58,000 Vietnam-era veterans and 11,000 civilians beginning this summer, are expected by the middle of next year.

Tuesday’s conference at Adelphi will feature informational workshops provided by the VA, county veterans officials and officials at the Long Island State Veterans Home. The workshops are designed to provide veterans and their caregivers with information to help them navigate the often confusing sources available to help veterans with health problems.

Javis said common challenges facing older veterans on Long Island include finding resources to allow them to continue living at home despite disabilities, securing alternative help when a caregiver is sick or unavailable, and dealing with a sudden illness that prevents them from returning home.

Javis said many veterans who elected not to register with the VA when they had health coverage through their union or employer often do not know they are eligible for free or reduced-cost doctor visits, prescription drugs and home health aides provided by the VA.

“Obviously, if people are better prepared, they may be able to stay at home and not end up in a nursing home,” Javis said. “We’re trying to get people to be forward looking so they can prevent a crisis.”

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