29 Years Later, Widow Gets Justice
Jim and Marion Gillespie were married in October of 1968. Jim was ready to start a family. These plans were put on hold when the newlywed was drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam.
“Jim never wanted to fight, but he answered his country’s call,” said Marion.
Following the war, Jim returned home, got his MBA degree and settled into a promising career with Supermarkets General. Little did he know that Agent Orange exposure would lead him to a premature death.
In February 1977, just seven years after his return, Jim was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). In just three weeks, the disease took his life. Marion was left with two young daughters, ages 18 months and 3 years old.
Shortly after Jim passed, Marion applied for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), but was denied because the VA didn’t view AML as a service-connected disease.
“The doctor who diagnosed Jim asked us if Jim worked around chemicals,” said Marion. “At first we said ‘no’ because it had been almost eight years since he served. It wasn’t until later that it hit me.”
She tried again in 1990 and a third time in 2004. Although she was denied all three times, Marion never gave up the battle for benefits.
“I’ve always been a very persistent person, especially when I know I’m right,” said Marion. “Plus, when you have two children, you just do what you have to do.”
After three failed attempts and more than two decades, Marion met New Jersey VFW State Service Officer Bernard McElwee in 2006.
McElwee urged Marion to appeal the claim because if Jim had lived just a few more months, his AML would have turned into Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), which is considered service-connected. He informed Marion that she would need four letters from blood specialists who affirmed this theory.
Marion sent out 100 letters to hematological oncologists.
“Eight of them wrote back in agreement,” said Marion. “Luckily, one of the doctors wrote a very long letter stating that there was no doubt in his mind.”
Once the theory was backed by specialists, Marion appealed the earlier decisions. The VA agreed with her claim, and compensation was finally awarded.
Marion had hoped for retroactive benefits dating back to 1977, but because the claim she appealed was submitted in 2004, she only received two years worth of retroactive benefits.
“It was still worth it,” said Marion. “I finally succeeded.”
“It was great to be able to help this woman win her 29-year-long fight,” said McElwee. “Her biggest concern was justice. She just wanted the cause of her husband’s disease to be acknowledged.”
Marion was so grateful to McElwee that she wrote him a heartfelt letter of appreciation.
“It was comforting to know that you were able to summarize my claim in a concise and forceful manner,” wrote Marion. “From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”