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Vietnam vets still waiting for recognition of Agent Orange exposure

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Vietnam Vet
Tens
of thousands of Vietnam vets are still waiting for the VA to
recognize their exposure to Agent Orange.


Kemberly
Groue/US Air Force



  • Tens of thousands of Navy veterans are excluded from VA
    benefits related to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam
    war.
  • A bill making its way through Congress would extend
    benefits to cover blue-water veterans, who were stationed in
    ships off the Vietnamese coast.
  • Early this month, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sent a
    letter to lawmakers asking to stop the bill, saying its
    provisions are based on sympathy instead of science.

Veterans groups are pushing
a bill making its way through Congress that
would extend VA benefits to tens of thousands US Navy veterans
who were potentially exposed to Agent Orange while serving off
the coast of Vietnam. The bill is the latest glimmer of hope for
veterans who have fought for decades to receive the benefit, and
would finally recognize their exposure to the toxic herbicide but
come at an estimated cost of $5.5 billion to US taxpayers.

The VA is attempting to delay
this provision, saying that this vast increase in health care
costs should only come after more study, which is likely to
publish next year.

“Science does not support the
presumption that blue water Navy veterans were exposed to Agent
Orange,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a letter to the
Senate.

The letter is yet another
roadblock facing Vietnam veterans who claim their health has
suffered due to exposure.

Operation Ranch Hand


US Air Force plane spraying defoliant
A
US Air Force C-123 sprays defoliants over the Vietnamese jungle
in May 1966. Although the military discontinued the use of
herbicides in 1971, many veterans say the herbicides coated the
planes for decades.


Department
of Defense/Associated Press file photo



Agent Orange was one of several
chemical herbicides used during the Vietnam War to destroy enemy
cover and food crops. Although primarily delivered via aircraft,
the defoliant was also carried on vehicles, back-mounted
equipment, and sprayed from ships.

Operation Ranch Hand lasted about
a decade before a scientific study reported that one of the
chemicals caused birth defects in lab animals. The military
stopped its use of herbicides in 1971; throughout the next decade
veterans began reporting instances of cancer and birth defects in
their children.

The legitimacy of their claims
would be argued for the next 20 years, until the Agent Orange Act
of 1991 directed the VA to conduct research into the chemical’s
potential side effects. In the decades since, Vietnam veterans
have slowly started to gain recognition of their Agent Orange
exposure and its sometimes life-threatening consequences.
  

As recently as 2010, the VA
extended the list of diseases it would recognize as being linked
to the herbicide. Just three years ago, the agency started
accepting claims for veterans who served in Agent
Orange-contaminated aircraft in the post-Vietnam era.

But since 2002, the VA took what
advocates and veterans say was a step backwards by invalidating
claims presented by blue-water veterans, saying there was no
conclusive scientific evidence that the vets, who served in
warships off the coast, were ever exposed to Agent Orange.

VA: Too much money, not enough science

The question is whether the
veterans were exposed to the herbicide through chemical runoff
that made its way into the South China Sea and was then converted
into drinking water through the ships’ distillation
plants.


US ships off Vietnamese coast
US
supply ships prepare to take ammunition and other supplies up the
Saigon River in February 1970. Sailors on these ships are
currently eligible for VA benefits; others, who cannot prove they
entered internal waterways, are not.


Mark
Godfrey/Associated Press



Where the ships were located
makes all the difference.

The VA discredits arguments that
US ships made water close enough to land to have used
contaminated water. According to the Institute of Medicine, which
is now known as the National Academy of Medicine, any chemical
runoff would likely have been diluted by coastal waters before
reaching the ships’ intakes. But, as reported in extensive
coverage by ProPublica, veterans have said ships often
distilled water well within that range.

Surprisingly, both sides of the
ordeal — the VA, which claims blue water veterans were not
exposed and veterans advocacy groups that say they were — use the
same IOM study to argue their side.

That’s because the IOM merely
states it is “possible” the Navy vets were exposed.

The VA now says that’s exactly
why they should wait before extending benefits to blue-water
veterans.

In a Senate hearing on August 1,
Dr. Paul Lawrence, the VA under secretary for benefits, noted
this as just one of three reasons the VA opposes the
bill. 

One of the provisions would
increase the fee charged to borrowers under the VA’s home loan
program. Lawrence said the VA is opposed to “increasing the costs
that some veterans must pay to access their
benefits.” 

He also maintained that the
increased loan fees could not offset the costs associated with an
extension of Agent Orange-related benefits. Secretary Wilkie’s
letter reinforced this idea, stating that Congress had
underestimated the health care costs by a whopping $5.4 billion.
He also argued that the addition of tens of thousands of eligible
veterans would only exacerbate an already extensive backlog of
Agent Orange-related claims. 

These arguments echo one made in
July, just days before the Senate hearing, by former VA Secretary
and Vietnam Navy veteran Anthony Principi. In an op-ed published
in USA Today, Principi argued that Congress should stand on the
side of science and pass “sensible laws that maintain the
integrity of our legislative process.” 

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam
Veterans Act soared through the House of Representatives with a
vote of 382-0. When — or even if — it will become law rests in
the hands of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs which,
since receiving Wilkie’s letter, has yet to decide. 

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