If you served and need help, see Mike Bierl
By ANDREW MCGINN
Even if they never once fired a weapon, veterans through the years have almost universally been put in harm’s way.
From radiation and asbestos to lead and mercury to jet fuel and degreasers to pesticides and herbicides to depleted uranium and burn pits to noises that can ravage hearing and drugs that were supposed to protect against nerve agents, serving the country is hazardous to your health.
Mike Bierl can help veterans navigate the labyrinth of benefits and services they’re entitled to for putting their physical and mental well-being on the line.
Bierl, 60, is settling into his role as the new director of Greene County Veterans Affairs.
A Carroll native who lives in Panora, Bierl served in the Air Force for nearly 22 years, first loading missiles onto F-15s at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska during the Cold War and then becoming a civil engineer.
“It was a really tight-knit community where people looked out for one another,” he said.
It’s now his job to look out for all veterans in Greene County, who have needs as wide ranging as their ages.
They may be back from Afghanistan and want to go to college or they may be seeking compensation for exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam that led to cancer. They may need counseling for enduring a sexual assault or they may just want a special kind of license plate.
“There’s so much out there,” Bierl said. “It’s just so much to absorb.”
That’s in part why the Jefferson post of Veterans of Foreign Wars put pressure on the county board of supervisors to get someone hired to succeed Tracie Perez as veterans service officer. Perez resigned in August after nearly nine years on the job.
Bierl reopened the office — located, curiously enough, inside the janitor’s closet on the ground floor of the Greene County courthouse — in January, just in time for a landmark court decision that could grant Agent Orange benefits to a new class of Vietnam veterans.
Before a federal appeals court ruled 9-2 on Jan. 29, Navy veterans who served in or near Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 were divided into two classes — Brown Water Navy vets and Blue Water Navy vets.
Brown Water Navy vets served on the inland waterways of Vietnam — like a river — and were presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, entitling them to disability compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
VA had previously denied Blue Water Navy vets — who operated in Vietnam’s territorial seas — the same benefits unless they could prove they came ashore during their service.
Last month’s court ruling lifts the burden of proof from Blue Water Navy vets and presumes that they, too, were exposed to Agent Orange, the ultra-toxic, jungle-clearing tactical herbicide.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a co-sponsor of the original Agent Orange Act of 1991, has long been on record as saying VA’s interpretation of the law was wrong and needed changed. He said Congress never intended to exclude a class of veterans in its original legislation.
A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine said that the way U.S. Navy ships produced potable water in Vietnam from distilled marine water made exposure to Agent Orange plausible.
In his short time on the job, Bierl already has been contacted by Blue Water Navy veterans who want to explore their options.
He also wants to investigate whether the county needs to offer a transportation service to take veterans to medical appointments.
Bierl, who drives a school bus for Greene County Schools when he’s not at the courthouse, has fielded calls from veterans in need of rides to Des Moines.
Local vets who want to access VA medical care are required to be seen at outpatient clinics in Carroll or Fort Dodge, or VA’s medical facility in Des Moines.
Someone from the local VFW is usually willing to take veterans to appointments, Bierl said.
“He’s doing it out of the kindness of his heart right now,” Bierl said, “but should he be compensated for gas? Those are the things I need to look into.”
Greene County veterans have been on their own to arrange rides.
“And,” Bierl added, “if they have a wheelchair, it makes it hard for a buddy to pick them up.”
Bierl’s office is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., which is determined by the county’s population, he said. He added that the board of supervisors is open to lengthening those hours.
“Some people come back not the same person,” he said of veterans. “That’s an extreme sacrifice.”