The USS Ronald Reagan and her gallant crew of men and women recently performed a heroic service for thousands after the devastating earthquake and tsunami on the east coast of northern Japan. They just don’t know it yet.
Davenport, a Navy public affairs officer during the Vietnam war. It shows U.S. Navy Ships with the coast of Vietnam clearly visible in the background.
The Reagan, and her carrier strike group, USS Chancellorsville and USS Preble, were nearly 100 miles offshore when they were engulfed by what the Navy described as: “A month’s radiation in just one hour.” The 7th Fleet command quickly repositioned these ships after contamination was detected aboard. If anyone in Washington has common sense, the incident should bring an end to the long and contentious war by the Department of Veterans Affairs against sailors of the Vietnam War who were exposed to Agent Orange.
But because Washington, D.C., is the last place anyone would expect to find common sense, and because this story involves the worst in bureaucratic confusion and ineptitude as well as a callous disregard for the plight of men who once sailed in harm’s way in our nation’s defense, this story is being written from a small town in Pennsylvania. It’s a disgraceful nightmare not only to these Veterans, but in many cases their families with only the widows left to fend for themselves as their husbands have paid the ultimate price for serving their country.
The Navy Veterans who are still alive are all over 50. They manned the decks of the greatest navy in the world, on ships large and small, determined mostly by the luck of the draw. And it was this luck of the draw that has now left the majority of them without benefits for their service. Senior bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seem relentlessly determined to prevent Navy Veterans of the Vietnam War from receiving benefits that are automatically granted to all other Vietnam Veterans.Veterans Affairs officials made a decision to cut off previously granted benefits by reinterpreting their own regulations, and as a result, have left thousands of Navy Veterans to suffer and die without disability and health benefits from the government that sent them to that distant war. It was a war that I firmly believe caused their illnesses.
Agent Orange is the term used to describe the dioxin-laced herbicides that were repeatedly sprayed over Vietnam to defoliate the jungles. The goal was to eliminate hiding places for enemy soldiers. The term originated from the orange stripe around the barrels of chemicals. Most of this deadly stuff was flown out of the large base at Da Nang, Vietnam, under the mission term Operation Ranch Hand. Literally, tons of it were dumped by multiengine aircraft, often three and four abreast. On the one hand, it did its job. Untold acres of Vietnam’s jungles were turned into a deadly wasteland. But it also exposed American servicemen and women to a chemical that now has them dying on average 13 years earlier than their counterparts who did not serve in Vietnam. This despite the manufacturers, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, assuring the government, that all was safe.
After years of denial in a prolonged battle by Vietnam Veterans, the government finally acknowledged the disabilities likely caused by Agent Orange, and a system was established to process claims for those who now have one or more of the diseases recognized by the VA as likely linked to exposure to these chemicals. The National Academy of Sciences was charged with determining which diseases were connected to Agent Orange. The list includes many cancers, multiple myeloma, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, among others.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 provided for benefits to all who had earned the Vietnam Service Medal during the 10-year war. The legislation was clear: Anyone who served, whether on land or sea, was presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. For many, it was too late, including Lt. Elmo R. Zumwalt III, the son of then Vice Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr, commander of Naval Forces, Vietnam.The younger Zumwalt was a swift boat skipper who died of cancer in 1988 at age 42. It also was too late for my friend, Marine Capt. Robert B. Scholl, whom I had talked into joining up with me in 1958. Bob flew 324 combat missions out of Da Nang during two tours, one in F4 Phantoms, the second as a helicopter gunship pilot. He died of cancer at 52.His younger brother, Jim, would follow him into the Marines, to Da Nang, and into the grave from cancer. Several other personal friends of mine have gone the same way, from the same cause.
After 1991, Veterans were able to apply for disability benefits when they were stricken with deadly cancers. Besides their diagnosis, all they needed to submit was proof of Vietnam service on their Department of Defense Form 214. To this day, for Veterans of the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, the process remains clear and fast. You were there, you have it, you are eligible. But shamefully, that is not the way it works for Navy Veterans. As far as the VA is concerned, most Navy Vietnam Veterans were never there and are not entitled to Agent Orange benefits, even though the government of Australia has shown that its Vietnam naval Veterans are dying at a higher rate than counterparts who served on the ground.
VA bureaucrats did not seem to warm to the idea of Agent Orange benefits in the first place. This was something that had been imposed upon them by Congress. Implementing this new disability benefit was going to be cumbersome, costly and impose upon their authority to determine which Veterans would get what. Nevertheless, in 1990, VA regulations defined service in Vietnam to include “service in the waters offshore or service in other locations if the service involved visitation in Vietnam.” Thus, when the Agent Orange Act was passed by Congress, the simple way to determine eligibility for any Veteran who was diagnosed with one of the related disabilities was proof of service in Vietnam.
Initially, eligible Veterans, including Navy Veterans, applied for and received the disability benefits to which they were entitled.
But in 2001, George W. Bush and his administrative team, many of whom avoided service in Vietnam, were calling the shots. Within a year, Blue Water Navy Veterans would be stripped of their eligibility for Agent Orange benefits.The Bush administration bureaucrats said that sailors who served aboard ships offshore could not have been exposed to Agent Orange. Only those who could prove they had left the ship and set foot in Vietnam would be eligible for benefits. Many Navy Veterans already receiving benefits had their disability revoked and payments stopped. New claims were denied, and it was left to each individual to prove on appeal that he was exposed under the new rules. Suddenly, two new terms entered the Vietnam history books: Brown Water Navy and Blue Water Navy.
Brown Water Navy Veterans are eligible for Agent Orange benefits; Blue Water Navy Veterans are not. The Brown Water Navy referred to boats and ships that operated on inland waterways such as swift boats skippered by Zumwalt and by Lt. John Kerry, the former presidential candidate. It also included a few landing ship tanks and other amphibious naval ships and landing craft. The Blue Water Navy was composed of larger ships that operated mainly on the open seas, particularly at Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf, anywhere from several miles to 50 or more miles offshore. These were the capital ships of the Navy and their escort and supply vessels. Under the modified VA rules, sailors serving aboard a Blue Water ship had to document proof that they had gone ashore in Vietnam. Few sailors could make this claim, and even for those who could found securing actual proof next to impossible in many cases.
Ironically, there is much scientific evidence to prove that Blue Water sailors were not only exposed to Agent Orange, but probably to a greater degree than troops on the ground. Because of that evidence, sailors from Australia are granted disability benefits for Agent Orange just as U.S. sailors were until 2002. Australia conducted extensive medical and scientific research from many sources, and the government concluded that its sailors and ships were exposed to Agent Orange while sailing off the coast of Vietnam and that the water distillation process then in use by Australians, as well as the U.S. Navy, likely made the contamination worse. The most important evidence is that Australia’s sailors, most of whom stayed offshore, are contracting Agent Orange cancers at a higher rate than Australian Veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam.
The Australians did not reach their conclusions lightly. Their scientific studies were thorough and exhausting. All the evidence was there, and the government of Australia acted accordingly, in 2006 granting Agent Orange benefits to the very sailors whose ships sailed alongside ours. In the United States, VA bureaucrats also responded quickly. They began to nitpick potential flaws in the Australian scientific studies. To do otherwise would endanger their own positions.
But Blue Water sailors were not going quietly. Former Navy Cmdr. Jonathon L. Haas, who had served in Vietnam aboard the ammunition tender USS Mount Katmai, appealed his 2004 denial of benefits to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.As part of his claim, Haas testified that clouds of Agent Orange propelled by offshore prevailing winds covered his ship, much like what occurred in March 2011 to the USS Reagan battle group off Japan. Haas was represented by the National Veterans Legal Services Program and joined by a friend-of-the-court brief from the American Legion.
CAVC agreed with Haas that the regulation change by the VA was improper, a decision that effectively would have restored benefits to everyone if accepted by the VA. The VA, however, refused this change and appealed the CAVC decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which overturned CAVC, ruling that the VA had authority to change the rules. The appeals court did not, however, rule on whether the VA’s rationale for making the changes was sound.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually declined to hear Haas’ further appeal, and in January 2009, Blue Water claims, which had been put on hold pending the outcome of Haas, were now ordered to be processed, meaning they would again be denied without proof of “boots on the ground.” It didn’t matter to the VA that Haas had proved his case before CAVC. Nor did it matter that the government of Australia’s evidence had now been reinforced by U.S. studies, in particular, the Selected Cancers Study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1990, which showed that Veterans who served in Vietnam had a much higher rate of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, 50 percent, than Veterans from the same era who did not go to Vietnam. These findings were largely responsible for the subsequent passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, but there was a specific part of the CDC study that should have raised the same alarms that went off in Australia.
The study concluded that of all those millions, and all those units and designations involved, the highest incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was experienced by none other than the sailors who served aboard ships off the coast of Vietnam. We now have two studies by two governments, one that shows that Vietnam Veteran sailors, most of them Blue Water, have a higher rate of all Agent Orange cancers, and the other that shows they also have a higher rate of one Agent Orange cancer studied, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And we have a government bureaucracy that has been fighting for almost 10 years to deny benefits to these same Veterans. How would you explain it?
The VA was beginning to feel the heat from Blue Water sailors and their advocates. The sailors were organizing. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association was formed as was the Veterans Association of Sailors of the Vietnam War. National Veterans organizations continued to voice support, and ever so slight cracks began to appear in the rules.
Fortunately, for Veterans, there is a part of the VA system called the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. The BVA was established for an obvious purpose like the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The BVA is the initial appeal process for Veterans when their claims have been denied by the regional office where they originate. It is a Veteran-friendly setting, as it is not an adversarial process. There is no one from the VA there to oppose the Veteran’s arguments, but Veterans can have a lawyer or other advocate present their case if necessary. The BVA is right across the street from the VA, but it is a whole new world for Veterans seeking justice as the staff is highly professional and committed to correcting mistakes and applying sound benefit-of-the-doubt judgment to its decisions. That obviously doesn’t mean that appellant Veterans are always going to win, but if they present solid evidence, they have a chance. It was at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals that a decision was made in 2004 that should have changed the entire course of the issue of the Blue Water Navy.
On July 29, 2004, the BVA ruled Da Nang Harbor an inland waterway. The ruling involved the USS Richmond K. Turner (CG-20). Here is the wording: “The evidence of record clearly shows that Da Nang Harbor is well sheltered and surrounded on three sides by the shoreline of Vietnam. A map submitted by the Veteran and his representative indicates that the harbor is nearly totally surrounded by land and that the entire harbor is located within the territorial boundaries of Vietnam. Further, the Veteran’s description of his ability to observe the activities on the shoreline is consistent with the map’s indication of the proximity of the land ... given the location of the harbor as being surrounded by the land on three sides and the evidence that the harbor is within the territory of Vietnam, and resolving all doubt in the Veteran’s favor, the board finds that Da Nang Harbor is an inland waterway for the purposes of the regulation. Service connection for diabetes mellitus is granted.”
Later BVA decisions ruled Da Nang Harbor an inland waterway as well. In an April 6, 2009, ruling involving the USS Towers (DDG-9), the BVA came to the same conclusion with similar evidence from the Veteran appellant. The ruling states: “Da Nang Harbor appears to be located on an interior river. The city of Da Nang is surrounded by an interior bay as opposed to having direct open sea access. The Veteran reported being only a few feet from the soil while aboard the USS Towers in the Da Nang Harbor. The board finds that the evidence shows service in the interior waters of Vietnam, and consequently, the Veteran meets the requisite Vietnam service for entitlement to a presumption of herbicide exposure. Service connection for diabetes mellitus, type II is granted.”
A Nov. 2, 2009, ruling involving the USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5) used the same words as the 2004 decision. The sailor involved was granted presumptive service connection for diabetes mellitus based upon herbicide exposure. The rulings, of course, could change everything. BVA rulings are not precedents, but in these cases there can be only one interpretation: Da Nang Harbor is now considered an inland waterway for the purposes of the regulation. Any member of the crew aboard a ship while it was in Da Nang Harbor is considered to have served in the Republic of Vietnam and is granted automatic presumption for exposure to Agent Orange. The question is no longer if the ship docked or anchored and whether anyone went on land.
This, of course, was big news. However, there was no announcement of this major ruling from the VA; instead the information was posted on the Internet by the Blue Water Veterans groups. In fact, there has been no official recognition at all from the VA regarding the status of Da Nang Harbor as determined by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and claims are continuing to be wrongfully rejected.It seems the VA has chosen to ignore the rulings it disagrees with.
As recently as 2009, the VA rejected claim requests from regional offices with the following explanation: “ ... The USS Ingersoll traveled up the Saigon River on October 24th and 25th of 1965 to fire on enemy bases. No other capital ships have been confirmed by Department of Defense to have traveled the inland waterways for which herbicide exposure is conceded.” In other words, unless you were on the Ingersoll back in ’65, your claim is denied.
But the VA Compensation and Pension Service Bulletin of January 2010 added 16 ships and several entire classes of vessels to the presumption list such as all landing ship tanks, all of which, while capital ships, were unfairly stalled as Blue Water ships when they, in fact, had been proven Brown Water by the Veteran claimants. These ships, like the previous “only one ship” Ingersoll, also had operated on the Saigon River and some on the Mekong, Song Lon Tao and Long Song Tao rivers as well as Cam Ranh Bay.
The disability claims that sailors filed with the VA were mostly not for themselves but rather with the hope they could somehow provide a small pension, and more importantly, full medical benefits, to their wives as the only possible legacy of their service to our country. In far too many cases, because they had been denied disability benefits, their finances had been depleted to the point where they knew their widows would be facing poverty. This is the outrage that has been perpetrated upon these brave souls who once sailed in harm’s way for their country.
If you think I am exaggerating, here are a few postings you can easily find on the Internet at Veteran-related sites:
“Does anyone know of anyone diagnosed with Agent Orange-related diseases who served in the Vietnam Blue Water Navy 1967-1969? My husband served aboard the USS Yorktown, and he is dying from Agent Orange-related lung cancer. Even the VA doctors admit his ‘type’ of cells, etc., indicate Agent Orange exposure but VA is still denying the claim.” Anonymous poster on Sept. 6, 2010.
“Please support our Vets, they deserve our respect. I am a proud wife of a Vietnam Vet, and he is now suffering from Stage 4 prostate cancer. He was onboard the USS Constellation. Blue Water Vets deserve the same compensation as all other Vietnam Vets.” Donna, July 29, 2011
“My brother, Tom Laliberte, is in the Critical Care Cardiac Unit at Tufts’ Medical Center in Boston. For him, time is running out. Please continue supporting benefits for the remaining Blue Water sailors.” Lori Laliberte, Aug 27, 2010
“A little late for my brother who went in healthy, had three Blue Water tours in ’Nam and died at 56 years old with liver, kidney, pancreas failures and diabetes. We buried him after he threw up all his own blood from a ruptured spleen or pancreas.” James, June 15, 2011
“I am really concerned about how I will leave this world, and what will become of my wonderful wife of 28 years? It is a sad state of affairs when one who serves their country, and is put in harm’s way, that our government will not even acknowledge the Blue Water Navy. I am ashamed of my government.” Gary, July 17, 2010
“I lost my husband in July, 2010, for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after being diagnosed in July of 2009. My husband was on the USS Lynde McCormick DDG-8 from ’71 to ’75. I think it is pathetic what the government is doing to these poor guys and their families. Our youngest is only 14 and was extremely close to his dad. My husband applied for benefits in 2009, and we are still waiting. How do you explain to your children that the government is probably waiting till we die before they help those that have lost someone because of them. It is very sad that our government is doing this to their own people, but are first to jump to help other countries.” Lori Belus, Feb. 20, 2011.
My research for this piece discovered the McCormick was at Da Nang Harbor and should have been on the VA list of ships that now qualify for Agent Orange benefits, but it still isn’t. In fact, the McCormick was one of the few ships that came under fire from North Vietnam shore batteries. Rare footage on the Internet shows the ship being bracketed by gun splashes at seven miles from shore, although there were no injuries. Evidence here should finally qualify the other crew members of the McCormick for benefits.
However, as Lori Belus clearly states, it is still pathetic what the government is doing to these men, because non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma happens to be the one disability on the Agent Orange list for which all Vietnam Veterans, including Blue Water sailors, are covered. Remember that the CDC study showed that the highest incidence among all Vietnam Veterans with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was, in fact, the Veterans of the Blue Water Navy. Lori Belus’ husband already had automatic presumption, and his claim should have been approved before his untimely death. That raises another disturbing question. Why is there not emergency priority for Agent Orange claims from any Vietnam Veteran? The government already knows two things about these claims: All of the Veterans are over 50 years old, and any Agent Orange claim is a possible life-threatening situation.
The BVA ruled Da Nang Harbor an inland waterway more than seven years ago. That’s seven years that the VA could have asked the Department of the Navy to provide a list of every 7th Fleet ship that sailed into Da Nang Harbor and seven years in which disabled Navy Veterans could have received benefits and assistance from their government just as quickly as their counterparts from the other branches of service. This evidence should cause the president to immediately order the controversial rule change to be reversed and eligibility for benefits to be not only restored, but expanded, for sailors who manned the ships of the 7th Fleet. Proof that these separate and clear rulings on Da Nang Harbor have apparently gone ignored by the VA bureaucracy is to be found in instructions to regional offices handling claims.
A Sept. 9, 2010, memo from the director of compensation and pension service states: “C&P Service considers open water ports such as Da Nang, Cam Ranh Bay and Vung Tau as extensions of ocean waters and not inland waterways.” To further demonstrate how ridiculous this is, the C&P Service explains: “This is illustrated by a quote from the 1967 ship’s history of the USS Cleveland (LPD-7), which states: 'Da Nang Harbor is easy to enter due to being open to the sea.' ” This is bureaucratic insanity at its best. An offhand quote from a sailor in 1967, totally meaningless to the question, has been blocking benefits to tens of thousands of Veterans who continue to suffer and die from their service while solid evidence to the contrary has been evaluated and ruled upon on three occasions by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
It’s shameful. Individual sailors are left to themselves to develop a successful claim for Agent Orange as nobody at the VA is going to help them. If they are lucky enough to learn about the Da Nang Harbor ruling in the first place, which by all rights should make them eligible, they are told by the VA they must provide the deck logs of their ship to support their claim. Few Veterans, and hardly any spouses or widows, know how to do this. But the information is there, and anyone who bothers to look will see that nearly every ship, if not all, that went to Vietnam from 1962 until 1975 was at Da Nang Harbor at some time, even the largest aircraft carriers such as USS Independence, Kitty Hawk, Enterprise, Saratoga and Coral Sea. So was the famed battleship USS New Jersey, which took her place at the “Man of War” outer anchorage in September 1968, and the USS Fox (CG-33), which carried Lt. Robert Upshur Woodward, a naval intelligence officer later known as Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.
More important than the ships themselves were the men aboard. The highest number of Navy Vietnam Veterans is shown at MilitaryUSA.Com, which gives the total as 242,491. Other sources show the number serving in Vietnam as 174,000, out of 229,000 in all of Southeast Asia. Even so, during hearings before congressional committees considering previous Agent Orange equity acts and the now all-important subject of cost, VA representatives testified that if the regulation were restored to cover all sailors, it would result in more than 800,000 new claims. It is an outlandish figure, but even that should not detract from the fact that no matter the actual number, all who served honorably deserve the benefits Congress intended.
It is vitally important that all survivors know there is no time limit on filing a claim for a survivor’s pension. All widows who remain single, even those remarried and later divorced, are entitled to file for the monthly pension and benefits their husbands earned for them by their sacrifice. What happened recently to the USS Reagan battle group off the coast of Japan is what the Blue Water Navy faced every day off the coast of Vietnam.
In all of the so-called studies about Agent Orange, none has focused on the one thing to which sailors have testified: that the stuff often appeared in cloud form, in addition to being mostly invisible. And that is why service aboard any ship that saw Vietnam service must be granted presumption, no matter when the service occurred.
Most capital ships had at least two tours, and ammunition and supply ships had eight to 10 tours. On each tour, each ship was exposed to potential herbicide contamination every day for months at a time. I suspect that contamination could have easily gotten into the shipboard ventilation and water systems. The president could order the Department of Veterans Affairs to ask the Department of the Navy for the U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam Monthly Historical Summaries 1965-1973, which will show the monthly history of every ship in the 7th Fleet.
The Monthly Historical Summary shows that 100 ships of the 7th Fleet were at Da Nang Harbor in June 1967 alone. Research for this story also unearthed another 132 ships that were at Da Nang Harbor, containing a total of 78,205 crewmen who should always have been eligible for benefits, according to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. These facts alone, in the name of common sense, should persuade the president to order that Agent Orange eligibility be immediately restored to all Navy Veterans of the Vietnam War. It is way past time to stop this nonsense of denying these Veterans the same coverage as other Veterans of Vietnam.
This was an administrative rule change by the bureaucracy without warning or notice to anyone. It was a slap in the face to the intent of Congress, which nevertheless allowed the Veterans Administration to do as it pleased for years. If more proof of nonsense is needed, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science just completed another exhaustive study, this one ordered, and presumably paid for by the VA and reported on May 20, 2011: “Lack of essential data make it impossible to say whether Blue Water Navy Veterans — who served aboard deep-sea vessels during the Vietnam War — face higher, lower or the same risk as other Vietnam Veterans for long-term health problems associated with exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides. It is plausible that service personnel assigned to deep-sea ships could have come into contact with the herbicides, but the military carried out no measurements of herbicide concentrations in the atmosphere or waterways or of service members’ exposures during the war, so efforts to extrapolate from limited data on air and water currents and personnel locations provide insufficient data on air and water currents, and personnel locations provide insufficient information to make determinations.” Once again, common sense goes out the window in Washington.
First, if it is “plausible” that they were exposed, then why are we still resisting granting them benefits? What happened to the vaunted concept of benefit of the doubt? The military did not take measurements during the war because the military thought at the time there was no danger from Agent Orange. The notion that there was limited data on air currents is nonsense. Every sailor knows that the prevailing winds from Vietnam are constantly blowing offshore. My high school classmate and lifelong friend, Retired Vice Admiral Edward Straw, testified to Congress during the summer about prevailing winds in Vietnam and the scientific evidence of the USS Reagan, to no avail. Congress has repeatedly shown it is incapable of correcting this injustice to its own intents.
President Obama can and should resolve this issue. This is, in its simplest terms, really only a matter of regulation. I am calling on President Obama to award benefits to all Veterans who served on any ship that earned the Vietnam Service Medal. He is commander in chief of our armed forces, and he also is head of the government bureaucracy. Will he side with the bureaucrats or will he side with Veterans?Will he side with Florence Langston of Carl Junction, Mo., whose husband, Bruce, a 20-year Navy Veteran, lost his battle with Agent Orange in 2010, leaving his widow to continue his decadelong battle with the VA for rightful benefits? Her story was in Legion magazine in March.
In the end, may God bring rightful justice to every sailor who ever set foot on a U.S. Navy ship that served in Vietnam waters, no matter what the color of water. There should be no such thing as a Brown Water Navy and a Blue Water Navy. It is a red, white and blue Navy. It is our Navy, and these are and were our sailors. It is past time our country treats them like the heroes they are.
H.R. 299, a bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to clarify presumptions relating to the exposure of certain Veterans who served in the vicinity of the Republic of Vietnam, and for other purposes
On May 15, 2018, the Congressional Budget Office transmitted an estimate of the budgetary effects of H.R. 299, a bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to clarify presumptions relating to the exposure of certain Veterans who served in the vicinity of the Republic of Vietnam, and for other purposes, as ordered reported by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on May 8, 2018. Among other things, the act would provide disability compensation to more of the Veterans who served in the territorial seas of Vietnam during the Vietnam War under the assumption that they had been exposed to Agent Orange, a blend of herbicides used by the Department of Defense to remove dense tropical foliage. CBO estimated that those provisions would increase direct spending by about $900 million over the 2019-2028 period.
The bill that was passed by the House amended the earlier version to expand the nautical area in which Veterans would be presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. That change would increase CBO’s estimate of the costs of the legislation by about $250 million to account for the additional Veterans that would be affected.
Since the original estimate was prepared in May, CBO has obtained new information that would affect future estimates of similar legislation. In total, we expect that accounting for this new information would increase the estimate of the legislation’s effect on direct spending by at least $1 billion over 10 years.
First, CBO now expects that more Veterans would be affected by enactment of the bill than previously estimated. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) already presumes that Veterans who served aboard certain U.S. Navy ships on the dates they were near the coast of Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange. Using information about the crew size of those listed ships, CBO estimated that about two-thirds of Veterans who served in the geographic area covered by the bill would obtain compensation under current law. Thus, in its estimate for H.R. 299, CBO projected that only one-third of Veterans in the covered population would be newly eligible for disability compensation under that bill.
We have since learned from additional discussions with VA that there is considerably more uncertainty than we originally anticipated about the number of Veterans that, under current law, VA would presume to have been exposed because of service aboard those vessels. Specifically, there is a greater likelihood that less than two-thirds of Veterans who served in the geographic area covered by the bill would obtain compensation under current law.
To account for that uncertainty CBO would, in future estimates expect that half of affected beneficiaries would obtain benefits under current law, and thus would not be affected by enactment of H.R. 299. That estimate is in the middle of the range of possible outcomes. Using that updated estimate would mean that fewer Veterans would be expected to receive benefits under current law and more would get benefits as a result of H.R. 299. The increase in the number of affected Veterans would result in additional retroactive payments to Veterans whose disability claims previously have been denied by VA and also would increase the number of recurring disability payments.
In addition, on the basis of new information from VA, CBO also would increase its estimate of the number of surviving spouses of deceased Veterans who would receive compensation because the cause of those Veterans’ deaths would be presumed to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
Finally, CBO would estimate that spending subject to appropriation would increase for additional personnel to process disability claims. Such spending would allow VA to handle new claims more quickly. Although H.R. 299 would not require VA to hire more personnel to process these additional claims, the department has indicated that it would need to do so in order to avoid a lengthy backlog.
CBO will incorporate this new information into its future estimates of the budgetary effects of such legislation.
When a Veterans bill passes the House by a vote of 382-0, one would think that the Senate would quickly follow suit and send it to the president for signature. However, in today's partisan environment, unanimous votes are hard to get. But after a seven year struggle, Navy Veterans succeeded in doing so.
A volunteer grassroots effort educated Congress on the need to extend the presumption of agent orange exposure to those ships who serve in the bays, harbors and territorial sea of the Republic of Vietnam. Tens of thousands of sick and dying Navy Veterans and their survivors, cheered the House vote and thought that they would finally receive their earned compensation and medical benefits.
The VA general counsel, ignoring both domestic and international law, decided that the term A service in the Republic of Vietnam was limited to the land mass and internal river system. Despite the fact that the United States recognized Vietnamese sovereignty over their territorial sea, the VA decided that Vietnamese sovereignty ended at the water's edge.
Reacting to the House vote, VA bureaucrats fought back. At a hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, VA Under Secretary Paul Lawrence, an Army Veteran with no nautical experience, argued that science did not support the exposure of the Navy Veterans.
The most senior Naval officers and hydrologists agree that the bill is well grounded in science. The Institute of Medicine has confirmed the accepted view that the agent orange petroleum mix floated into Vietnamese estuarine waters. Another study by the State of New Jersey found that a spill in the Passaic River contaminated seafood over 150 miles from shore. The scientific facts speak for themselves.
The Institute of Medicine also confirmed findings by the University of Queensland that the evaporation distillation system, that converted salt water to potable water, actually enriched the dioxin. Our Australian allies also discovered a higher cancer incidence in Navy Vietnam Veterans than those who fought in country. The Center for Disease Control found similar heightened occurrence of Non Hodgkins Lymphoma in Navy Veterans.
The VA argued that Navy ships did not distill water within twelve miles of shore. This guidance, issued two decades after the war, allowed potable water distillation at the Commanding Officer's discretion and placed no restriction on the distillation of feed water for the boilers. The same system was used for both. Harbor water used for the boilers contaminated the entire water distribution system. This information had been previously provided to the VA.
The previous Secretary Dr. David Shulkin supported the bill. In a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) Shulkin stated that many of our Vietnam Veterans were not treated with the dignity and respect that they deserved. But those were different times. We now can do better. These Vietnam Veterans have waited too long. It is time for us as a country to do the right thing.
When the VA withdrew support for the bill, it tied the matter up in the Senate Committee where it could die at the end of the session. In a letter to Chairman Isakson, Wilkie complained that the bill would set a precedent and intimated that the archaic Veterans Benefits Administration could not absorb tens of thousands of claims requests from these Veterans, as well as hundred of thousands, or perhaps millions, of claims from other victims of military toxic exposure. Secretary Wilkie has agreed to meet with Military-Veterans Advocacy representatives on Dec. 3 to discuss the issue.
As the lame duck session comes to a close, the Senate is still considering the House bill to extend the presumption of exposure to ships that served offshore. On the horizon, is the case of Procopio v. Wilkie, pending at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit which could result in the same expansion. The question is will relief come first from the courts or Congress; or not at all.
President Trump has stated repeatedly that it is the VA's job to take care of Veterans. Yet these Veterans have been deprived of their earned benefits for the better part of two decades. Whether through the courts, Congress or the VA itself, it is time for this country to recognize the sacrifice of these Veterans and restore their benefits.
John B. Wells is a retired Navy commander who served for 22 years on several ships as a surface warfare officer. In his second career, he is an attorney emphasizing military and Veterans law. He now acts as executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy a Slidell, Louisiana based non-profit.
Tampa, Fla (WFLA) - Tens of thousands of Navy Veterans who served in the Vietnam War are waiting for Georgia Senator Johhny Isakson to do something.
In June the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to extend health care and disability benefits to sailors who served on ships in Vietnamese territorial waters and suffer from diseases associated with Agent Orange.
Instead of grabbing the momentum and putting the Blue Water Navy bill up for a vote, Isakson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans affairs decided he needed a closer look..
8 On Your Side has reported extensively on this issue and followed this effort for more than 2 years.
With this session of Congress set to end in December, will he fish or cut bait? More tonight at 6 On News Channel 8.
Some Vietnam Veterans are living in fear, others dying without benefits they say they deserve, after the government revoked medical care for thousands of Veterans who say they were exposed to a more toxic version of the defoliant Agent Orange.
Veterans Affairs argues the decision was based on a lack of scientific evidence linking some Veterans to Agent Orange.
But WRAL found that the reason there's little scientific evidence is the government failed to test off-shore sailors during and after the war.
Mike Bornes volunteered to serve his country during the Vietnam War, a conflict that included the defoliant linked to numerous long-term illnesses.
“I’m true blue USA all the way,” Bornes said.
But now, 50 years removed from his tour of duty, the 71-year-old former Navy Yeoman from Holly Springs said he feels his country betrayed him.
“I'm tired of having a dollar sign put on my life,” he said. “It's wrong.”
Bornes is among the thousands of so-called Blue Water Sailors who worked on supply and ammunition ships off the coast of Vietnam.
Those sailors don't qualify for medical benefits afforded to troops on the ground.
“It's wrong,” Bornes said. “It's unethical. It's unfair.”
The VA did treat them for exposure to Agent Orange for years but ended those benefits in 2002.
“They know we've been exposed,” Bornes said. “They just don't want to do it because they say they don't have the money.”
The frontline of the battle for benefits is now in Washington, D.C., where the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the VA to restore benefits. The bill is now stalled in the Senate.
“Vietnam Veterans generally believe the policy of the VA when it comes to any kind of toxic exposure, especially Agent Orange, is delay, deny and wait for us to die,” said Rick Weidman, of Vietnam Veterans of America.
The point of contention is whether the troops on ships were exposed to Agent Orange.
Unlike ground troops, they weren't tested at the time.
Without those tests, the VA argues there's no proof the Veterans are suffering from exposure to Agent Orange.
“We want to find ways to pay benefits, but historically, we have to say no to some folks when there's not a rational basis or the evidence is not there,” said Beth Murphy, VA compensation service director.
The VA has pointed to one study by the Institute of Medicine in which researchers "could not find enough data to determine whether or not Blue Water Navy personnel were exposed."
What the VA usually doesn't cite in the same research is the claim, “Given the lack of measurements taken during the war and the almost 40 years since the war, this will never be a matter of science but instead a matter of policy.”
“It's preposterous,” Weidman said. “It's not scientific evidence; it is simply wanting to say no.”
Bornes said priorities seemed unfair.
“They always find money to send you to war, but they never find money to treat you when you come back,” Bornes said.
He argues the ships spent months just off the Vietnam coast using treated ocean water for everyday life.
Australian researchers found the on-board filtration process didn't remove the harmful chemicals from the water. Instead, it intensified them.
“Everything you did with water, you did with that contaminated water,” Bornes said.
Another controversy is how to pay the additional benefits.
A Senate bill would tack a fee on VA mortgage loans. Opponents say it's nothing more than an additional tax on Veteran homebuyers.
Supporters argue even with that fee, VA loans are much cheaper than what's available on the open market.
Bornes is now retired and tends to his model train hobby, which he calls relaxing, and to his diabetes, which causes pain and numbness in his hands and feet.
He said he's convinced his diabetes is linked to Agent Orange, but he's more concerned about his fellow sailors facing more serious health problems.
“Now that we're getting sick, we can't get the benefits that we deserve,” Bornes said. “Something is wrong.”
43 years after the Vietnam war, many Navy Veterans are still battling for benefits for potential Agent Orange exposure
- 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 and their advocates are firing back, flooding the Senate with letters supporting the bill.
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.
But the Veterans are fighting back. As of Thursday morning, Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Veterans affairs committee, has received at least three letters from advocates urging the Senate to pass the bill. They say the VA is "cherry-picking" evidence and overestimating the bill's true cost.
Operation Ranch Hand
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.
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."
Veterans and advocates say that's 'poppycock'
The Veterans won't face this battle alone.
The Senate is hearing from a resounding chorus of supporters who say the VA is using a typical stall tactic.
"These Vietnam Veterans have waited too long. It is time for us as a country to do the right thing," former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin wrote. Dr. Shulkin, who was fired by President Donald Trump in late March, said this bill is not driven by sympathy as the VA claims, but by a conscientious desire to uphold "our country's responsibility for caring for those who have borne the battle."
Another letter, cosigned by four Veterans organizations, pointed out that it was the VA's "erroneous decision" to disqualify blue-water Veterans in the first place, and that the science is on their side.
"The IOM found that there is not a scientific basis to exclude blue water Navy Veterans," the letter said.
In his letter addressed to the Senate, Dr. Shulkin recognized the legitimacy of both sides of this nuanced issue.
"The answer must not be to simply deny benefits," he wrote. "When there is a deadlock, my personal belief is that the tie should be broken in favor of the brave men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us."
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 now rests in the hands of the Senate which, as of Thursday, has yet to decide.
During the Vietnam War, hundreds of U.S. Navy ships crossed into Vietnam’s rivers or sent crew members ashore, possibly exposing their sailors to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange. But more than 40 years after the war’s end, the U.S. government doesn’t have a full accounting of which ships traveled where, adding hurdles and delays for sick Navy Veterans seeking compensation.
The Navy could find out where each of its ships operated during the war, but it hasn’t. The U.S. Department of Affairs says it won’t either, instead choosing to research ship locations on a case-by-case basis, an extra step that Veterans say can add months — even years — to an already cumbersome claims process. Bills that would have forced the Navy to create a comprehensive list have failed in Congress.
As a result, many ailing Vets, in a frustrating race against time as they battle cancer or other life-threatening diseases, have taken it upon themselves to prove their ships served in areas where Agent Orange was sprayed. That often means locating and sifting through stacks of deck logs, finding former shipmates who can attest to their movements, or tracking down a ship’s command history from the Navy’s historical archive.
“It’s hell,” said Ed Marciniak, of Pensacola, Fla., who served aboard the USS Jamestown during the war. “The Navy should be going to the VA and telling them, ‘This is how people got aboard the ship, this is where they got off, this is how they operated.’ Instead, they put that burden on old, sick, dying Veterans, or worse — their widows.”
Some 2.6 million Vietnam Veterans are thought to have been exposed to — and possibly harmed by — Agent Orange, which the U.S. military used to defoliate dense forests, making it easier to spot enemy troops. But Vets are only eligible for VA compensation if they went on land — earning a status called “boots on the ground” — or if their ships entered Vietnam’s rivers, however briefly.
The VA says Veterans aren’t required to prove where their ships patrolled: “Veterans simply need to state approximately when and where they were in Vietnam waterways or went ashore, and the name of the vessel they were aboard, and VA will obtain the official Navy records necessary to substantiate the claimed service,” VA spokesman Randal Noller wrote in an email.
Once the VA has that documentation, the vessel is added to a list of ships eligible for compensation, streamlining future claims from other crewmembers. But proactively searching thousands of naval records to build a comprehensive list of eligible ships — as some Veterans have demanded — “would be an inefficient use of VA’s resources,” Noller said.
But because the historical records are sometimes missing or incomplete, Veterans groups say the fastest and surest way to obtain benefits is for Vets to gather records themselves and submit them as part of their initial claims.
More than 700 Navy ships deployed to Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. Veterans have produced records to get about half of them onto the VA’s working list, with new ships being added every year. Still, Veterans advocacy groups estimate about 90,000 Navy Vets are not eligible to receive benefits related to Agent Orange exposure, either because their ships never entered inland waters, or because they have yet to prove they did.
Joseph Pires, 68, spent 2 1/2 years working to convince the VA that his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Bennington, should be added to the list.
He reviewed the daily deck logs to find the latitude and longitude recordings and read officers’ descriptions of the ship’s movements. He found a listing for Dec. 26, 1966, when the ship entered Qui Nhon Bay Harbor to pick up comedian Bob Hope and his troupe for an onboard Christmas show.
“Now I had the proof,” he said.
He submitted it to the VA, waited a year and received an email on Dec. 31 notifying him the Bennington had been added to the VA’s list. That makes about 2,800 crew members aboard the ship on those two days eligible for benefits if they have illnesses associated with Agent Orange.
Now Pires is waging the next battle: His personal application for benefits, based on his prostate cancer and ischemic heart disease, has been pending for nine months.
“They put everything on your shoulders,” said Pires, who serves as the Bennington’s historian.
Pires, of Calabash, N.C., is among more than 4,000 Vietnam Veterans and family members from across the country who’ve shared Agent Orange-exposure stories with ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot over the past several months.
The importance of proving to the VA which ships went inland during the war was underscored last month, when the VA rejected a request from Veterans and members of Congress to extend benefits to all Navy Veterans who served within 12 miles of the Vietnamese coast, the so-called Blue Water Veterans. Those Vets believe they were exposed to Agent Orange even if they stayed off the coast, arguing that their ships sucked in water tainted with the herbicide, which contains the dangerous chemical dioxin, and used it for showering, cooking and cleaning.
When Congress passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991, the VA initially approved benefits for any sailor who had earned the Vietnam Service Medal. But in 2002, it began denying sick Blue Water Navy Vets compensation for Agent Orange exposure, maintaining that the placement of a comma in the original legislation made a distinction between those who served on the ground in Vietnam and those who served elsewhere.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims directed the VA to review its rules for compensating Blue Water Navy Veterans. In February, 10 months later, the VA affirmed its policy of providing benefits only to those who served on land or in inland waters. If anything, the VA tightened its policy by excluding ships that entered certain bays and harbors that had previously been accepted.
The VA estimates it would cost taxpayers $4.4 billion over the next decade to provide benefits to all Blue Water Veterans, but its policy of excluding them has complicated the task of determining who’s eligible for compensation.
By 2006, Veterans had begun presenting evidence of those ships’ activities, and the VA began granting Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Veterans on a case-by-case basis. A couple years later, Veterans advocates succeeded in convincing the VA to use the evidence submitted by individual Veterans to maintain a list of approved ships.
John Rossie, executive director of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association and a Vietnam Veteran, agreed to help the government collect information from affected Veterans, hoping to speed up the process. He said he put out a message in 2009 telling Navy Vets that if they sent him their ship’s deck logs, he would get them to the VA.
“A month later, I smacked myself on the forehead, because I started getting buried under boxes full of these deck logs.”
The first published list came out in January 2010 and had 16 ships on it.
As Veterans have come forward with records — and as the VA has conducted its own searches — the agency has added a few dozen ships each year. More than 430 ships are listed now. The pace has slowed, but Rossie is confident more need to be added.
“It’s been a lot of work,” Rossie said. “A lot of individuals have invested a lot of hours in this.”
To make the process easier, Blue Water Vets pressed for legislation in 2013 that would have required the Navy to pull all of the deck logs and compile an accurate accounting of which ships spent time inside Vietnam’s border. That bill passed the House, 404–1, but didn’t advance in the Senate.
A year later, in 2014, advocates got the House to insert language into the National Defense Authorization Act that would have required the same thing. John Wells, a Louisiana lawyer who has spent more than a decade advocating for Blue Water Veterans, said the language was stripped from the Senate version after the Navy objected, contending it would cost the service $5 million to conduct a study to locate each ship.
The Navy did not answer questions for this story.
Marciniak, the Veteran from Pensacola, says he was fortunate. He’d held onto paperwork proving that he’d spent time in Saigon before flying back to the U.S.
That yellowing page spelling out his orders was enough to prove to the VA that the 76-year-old Navy Vet was eligible for compensation after he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and heart disease a few years ago. The claim was approved in 2013, a year and a half after he initiated the process.
Others he served with aboard the Jamestown, a research vessel, off the coast of Vietnam had a harder fight. The ship, along with the USS Oxford, intercepted enemy radio traffic and frequently sent crew members ashore to deliver sensitive information to commanders on the ground. As a result, the ships’ activities were classified, making it more difficult for Veterans to come up with records proving where they served.
Former Oxford and Jamestown crewmembers were eventually able to get their hands on declassified command reports that included details about the trips ashore. Those records helped get both ships added to the VA’s list in 2011.
“Even with the ship listed, it took the VA more than 18 months before they approved my claim,” Marciniak said. “I’ve written letters for three widows addressed to the VA explaining how the the Jamestown operated and describing our regular courier runs, because their husbands’ died before they were able to get VA compensation.”
Another challenge: Veterans who were denied benefits before their ships were added to the list must start the process all over again. “The problem there,” Rossie said, “is these guys are sick and dying. They don’t have a lot of time to jump through hoops.”
Rory Riley-Topping, a consultant and former staff director for the House VA Subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs, said the VA has many pressing issues to deal with — health care wait times, construction delays, benefits backlogs. “Bureaucracies that are large are not known for their efficiencies, and this is a great example of bureaucracies being shortsighted and not understanding the big picture. A lot of people thought this issue would go away, and obviously it didn’t.”
For John Kirkwood, the push to get the amphibious command ship USS Mount McKinleyadded began in March 2010 when he went to the VA hospital in San Diego because he wasn’t feeling well. He spent 40 days in the hospital after a heart attack. His wife and stepdaughter initiated a claim for benefits. A little over a year later, it was denied because he couldn’t prove he was in Vietnam or exposed to Agent Orange.
Kirkwood wasn’t able to get deck logs from the National Archives or the Navy. Both said they didn’t have them and had no idea where they were. “I didn’t know what the hell to think at that point,” said Kirkwood, a 66-year-old retired auto body technician.
In May 2011, he posted a note on the ship’s website that read, “I was a shipmate of yours on the last cruise of the Mount McKinley in 1969. The purpose of this comment is to see if any of you remember going into Da Nang harbor on that cruise for liberty, parties at China Beach and water skiing in the harbor behind the Captain’s Gig.”
Emails began streaming in from shipmates he knew and those he didn’t. “I remember going ashore,” one wrote in an email he shared with ProPublica and The Pilot.
“You are not the first one to ask these questions,” another wrote.
Kirkwood also found a cruise book in his garage, which is essentially a scrapbook of the tour. “I was able to take photocopies out of there showing that we actually went to Da Nang Harbor,” he said. “I can’t make up a cruise book.”
A fellow shipmate sent him a calendar he kept, showing the ship was anchored in Da Nang Harbor over 60 days of that cruise. Kirkwood’s own claim for benefits was approved in January 2013. Kirkwood then forwarded his documentation to Rossie, who forwarded it to the VA. The ship was added to the VA’s list in July of that year.
“Sometimes I felt I was fighting a losing battle, but I’m persistent,” Kirkwood said.
Others are still fighting. Brad Davidson began researching the process in November after being diagnosed with two conditions associated with Agent Orange.
Davidson, who declined to disclose his specific health troubles, remembered going ashore for leisure breaks multiple times during his deployment aboard the destroyer USS Brinkley Bass in 1970, but he had no records to prove it. He tracked down the deck logs, which showed the ship spent time anchored in Da Nang Harbor, Cam Ranh Bay and Ganh Rai Bay, but nothing in the handwritten notes mentioned crew members being ferried ashore during those stops.
“That is a problem, trying to get a clear recollection all these years later,” said Davidson, 69, who lives near Chicago. “And beyond that, getting hard evidence. … They don’t make it easy.”
Earlier this year he got in touch with his crew’s reunion group, and a few former shipmates responded with photographs of crew members at a beach party at Cam Ranh.
His memories from that time are a blur, Davidson said, but that afternoon spent drinking beer on a beach 46 years ago could be the difference between receiving thousands of dollars per year in disability benefits and receiving nothing.
“I think we’ve certainly convinced ourselves,” Davidson said. “But we’re not sure what it’s going to take to get us on the VA’s list. We think it’s enough, but we don’t know for sure what the VA requires.”
He faces an uphill battle. Generally, the VA hasn’t accepted photographs to prove a Veteran spent time on the ground in Vietnam. Davidson hopes the agency makes an exception in his case.
“I don’t really have time to wait and find out.”
ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot are interested in hearing from Veterans and family members for our ongoing investigation into the effects of Agent Orange on Veterans and their children. Share your story now at propublica.org/agentorange or hamptonroads.com/agentorange.
WASHINGTON — The sponsor of legislation that would help certain naval Veterans who served in the Vietnam War obtain compensation for health complications caused by Agent Orange exposure is hopeful the legislation will move forward, despite expressed opposition from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Naval Veterans who served on the shore of Vietnam do not get compensation from the Veterans Administration for complications caused by exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 only allowed compensation for soldiers who served, boots on the ground, inland or sailors who served on inland water ways, but Veteran organizations are pushing Congress to pass legislation that would add sailors stationed just off-shore during the war, arguing it is possible those sailors could have been exposed.
“I have known Navy Veterans who have died waiting for this legislation to pass,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Flaherty, director of Columbia County Veterans Services. “There are a lot of unhappy Veterans. There is no question in our minds when those planes flew over spraying Agent Orange it affected the sailors on the deck of ships on the shoreline.”
In the past, Flaherty said the cancer-causing herbicide could have been carried to ships anchored offshore by wind or into ships’ potable water drawn from the ocean and filtered.
The House of Representatives passed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act on June 25 with a 382-0 vote.
The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs has held the bill since June 28.
“Senator Gillibrand has had productive conversations with Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., about his concerns and they have discussed ideas for modifications,” according to a statement from Gillibrand’s office. “We are hopeful that Chairman Isakson will produce a bill with small modifications very soon and that the Senate would be able to vote on it without any further delay.”
The committee held a hearing on the bill Aug. 1 and VA Undersecretary for Benefits Administration Paul Lawrence told members of the committe the department opposes the legislation.
“We oppose this bill,” Lawrence said. “We know it is incredibly difficult to hear from groups of Veterans who are ailing and ill. There is no conclusive science from the institute of medicine to support claims of exposure.”
Lawrence arguedthe bill would set a precedent that the department would have to pay Veterans’ claims regardless of the scientific evidence.
The VA is conducting a health study that compares the health effects on Vietnam Veterans who did not serve inland, including nearly 1,000 Blue Water Navy Veterans, with non-Veteran populations, which will start to be published in 2019, Lawrence said.
“They have been studying this for 50 years,” Flaherty said. “This is the closest this bill has ever been. It is time to stop stalling, stop studying and give these Veterans what they deserve.”
Agent Orange exposure can cause many health complications including chronic B-cell leukemias, Hodgkin lymphoma, ischemic heart disease, multiple myeloma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda — characterized by liver dysfunction — prostate cancer, respiratory cancers and soft tissue sarcomas, which attacks muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels and connective tissues, and diabetes according to the website for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Randy Staats, of Hudson, served as a deckhand on the USS New Jersey from 1967 to 1969 and was anchored off the Vietnam shore during that time at points all along the coast. Staats suffers from diabetes, a condition he has requested compensation for more than 10 times since 1992 and has been denied every time, he said.
“They just told me I wasn’t going to get it because Blue Water Navy Veterans are not entitled to it,” Staats said. “They are waiting for most of us to die and then they will give it to us. If it was their kids over there, they would have this thing passed already.”
FUNDING THE BLUE WATER NAVY BILL
Lawrence also told committee members in August that the VA opposes the way Congress plans to pay for the bill through increasing fees charged as part of the VA Home Loan programs. Veterans with disabilities are exempt from funding fees.
“The funding plan for [the bill] is unfortunate,” said Greene County Veterans Service Agency Director Michelle Romalin Deyo. “It is disconcerting that the funding for benefits payable to our Blue Water could be at the expense of other Veterans.”
Under the bill passed by the House rates for Veterans using the loan programs would be as follows:
- From 2.15 percent to 2.40 percent of the loan amount for loans with no down payment and first-use of the VA guarantee benefit.
- From 3.3 percent to 3.8 percent of the loan amount for loans with no down payment on subsequent use of the loan benefit.
- From 1.50 percent to 1.75 percent of the loan amount for loans with a 5 percent down payment.
- From 1.25 percent to 1.45 percent of the loan amount for loans with a 10 percent down payment.
“Though the VA Home Loan Guarantee Funding Fee is only collected from Veterans who are not rated by the VA with a service-connected disability with certain exceptions; that doesn’t mean it won’t affect our disabled Veterans,” Deyo said. “Veterans with pending original claims, will generally not be eligible for the funding fee waiver — not until they have a VA Rating Decision of 10 percent service-connected disabled or greater. The funding fee is already a sizable fee.”
The increases would take effect Jan. 1 next year and return to current levels after Sept. 30, 2026.
Funding fees haven’t been raised since 2004.
“In June, the House unanimously approved the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act 382-0 and the Senate should follow suit immediately to get these Veterans the benefits they deserve,” said U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-19, who voted for the bill. “After enactment of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, the VA determined that benefits for Veterans made sick by agent orange would only be available to those with “boots on the ground” or served on inland waterways. I believe this determination was wrong.”
Deyo works with many Blue Water Navy Veterans, and hopes the bill passes soon.
“We do have a significant population of Blue Water Veterans affected by herbicide exposure-related illnesses considered presumptive for so-called ‘Boots on the Ground’ Veterans,” Deyo said. “So, I am very hopeful that Congress will find another resource, outside of existing VA programs, to make sure our Blue Water Veterans are finally compensated, and all of the corresponding benefits are extended to them and their dependents, without further delay.”
Department of Veterans Affairs officials say they strongly oppose passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 299), which would extend Agent Orange disability benefits and health care to between 70,000 and 90,000 Veterans who served aboard ships in territorial waters off Vietnam during the war, and today suffer ailments associated with herbicides sprayed across its jungles for years.
The Blue Water Navy bill passed the House unanimously in late June and seemed certain to fly through the Senate, given reports of close coordination on the bill between the chambers’ Veterans’ Affairs committees, and the House having negotiated a plan to pay for the benefits with major Veteran service organizations.
On Wednesday, however, with Robert Wilkie installed two days earlier as VA secretary, his undersecretary for benefits, Paul R. Lawrence, delivered a blistering attack on the Blue Water Navy bill, and on a proposal to test providing routine dental care to Veterans, during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing.
Lawrence testified that there’s still no credible scientific evidence to support extending Agent Orange-related benefits to shipboard personnel who never went ashore in Vietnam or patrolled its rivers. Without such evidence, he said, it would be wrong, and would create a disastrous precedent, to award VA benefits.
“This committee set the standard to use science to be fair and consistent in cases such as this,” said Lawrence, referring to the Agent Orange Act of 1991. “Once that standard is removed from the equation, it becomes nearly impossible to adjudicate a claim of this type on the merits. The resulting lower threshold sets in motion the prospect of uncontrolled demands for [VA] support.”
Lawrence, who took charge of Veteran benefit programs in May, warned that if HR 299 is enacted, it will “be referenced when other exposure claims are presented to this committee. At that point, Congress will be under greater pressure to accommodate these requests too, regardless of the evidence.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what damage Lawrence and his top official on post-deployment health issues, Dr. Ralph Erickson, inflicted on the popular Blue Water Navy bill. A majority of senators on the committee still spoke in favor.
But the Trump administration has reversed signals of support that a beleaguered VA secretary, David Shulkin, gave Blue Water advocates in March.
VA for years had opposed the legislation. The usual hard line softened a year after Shulkin became President Donald Trump’s first VA secretary when he told Rep. David Valado, R-Ga., lead sponsor of the House bill, “that these Veterans have waited too long and this is a responsibility that this country has.”
Shulkin noted that VA lacked scientific evidence that shipboard personnel were exposed to dioxin. But he said his staff was “working hard to look at offsets” — cuts to other parts of the VA budget — to pay for Blue Water Navy benefits.
“And it is a high priority for us,” he added.
Two weeks later Shulkin was fired, deepening a leadership vacuum at VA caused by political chaos at the White House. Trump initially nominated his White House physician, a Navy admiral, to replace Shulkin. The choice soon fell victim to controversy. The House, meanwhile, passed its Blue Water Navy bill after the Veterans’ Affairs Committee negotiated with major Veterans organizations a way to pay for it, by raising user fees modestly on VA guaranteed home loans.
Wilkie became VA secretary this past Monday. By Wednesday, there was no trace of the accommodating tone on the Blue Water Navy issue that Shulkin had expressed months earlier. Lawrence scorched the bill and its “pay for” plan.
“VA is opposed to paying for the provisions of this bill by increasing the cost that some Veterans must pay to access their [home loan] benefits. Veterans will either have to finance the VA funding fee with interest, or pay up front with cash. This means fewer Veterans will buy homes or [will] buy homes using non-VA options, potentially opening them to predator lenders,” Lawrence said.
He further argued that opening Agent Orange benefits to thousands more Veterans would stunt ongoing efforts to reduce the backlog of compensation claims on appeal, adding time and cost to claim processes.
In written testimony, Lawrence gave fresh estimates on the cost of the Blue Water Navy bill, at total of almost $7 billion over the first 10 years. Some senators pushed back at his attack on the bill, arguing it wouldn’t be needed if VA didn’t set a high bar for these Navy Veterans to gain benefits for conditions on VA’s list of 14 ailments linked to Agent Orange.
Erickson told senators most of the ailments presumed to be caused by Agent Orange also are tied to aging, therefore VA needs evidence of dioxin exposure for ships at sea. He said a Blue Water Navy review conducted by the Institute of Medicine in 2011 failed to find sufficient evidence of dioxin exposure.
He and Lawrence dismissed an oft-cited Australian study that was the scientific foundation for that government to award Agent Orange-related benefits to its shipboard Veterans. That study, said Lawrence, was based on an experiment involving distillation of water with presumed levels of dioxin near to shore. It was U.S. Navy policy to take on water for shipboard use more than 12 miles out to sea, to avoid contaminants, Erickson explained.
Rick Weidman, with Vietnam Veterans of America, made the strongest case in support of Blue Water Veterans: VA officials have misinterpreted the 2011 study, which did find it plausible that shipboard Veterans were exposed to dioxin. Given that Congress already presumes Veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam were exposed, and doesn’t try to calculate level of exposure, that benefit of the doubt should be applied to shipboard personnel too, Weidman said.
“How much [exposure] makes no difference,” he said. “You don’t know [the] difference for folks who served in the delta versus the central highlands where I served. Who knows? And you can’t put it together 40 years later.”
VA’s hard line appears to leave Senate Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in a tough spot. Veteran service organizations and leaders of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee thought Isakson was set to endorse the bill and shepherd it swiftly toward enactment.
At the hearing, however, Isakson said “we have more work to do on these issues.” He promised the committee would work “deliberately” to understand all facets of the Blue Water bill, including whether the House plan to raise VA home loans fees was enough to pay for it. Isakson asked Lawrence whether charging non-disabled Veterans an extra $250 on every $100,000 in loan value would cover the cost of extending Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Navy Veterans.
“Not in our opinion, no,” said Lawrence. Isakson nodded agreement.
“I did real estate sales my entire life,” Isakson said. “A lot of VA loans, FHA loans. You can make those numbers look like a lot of things. That is not a lot of money” if VA home loan fees are raised, as the House voted, from 2.25 percent of loan amounts to 2.4 percent, for Veterans with active-duty service. “It’s variable too, and depends on number of loans that actually are closed” in any year, he said.
It seems the Blue Water Navy bill will be adrift in uncertainty for at least several more months, its future dependent on how Senate leaders react to stiffened resistance from the Trump administration.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) met Tuesday with Robert Wilkie to try to coax the new VA secretary out of his department’s newly stiffened opposition to a House-passed bill that would extend VA health care and compensation to tens of thousands of former sailors and Marines with Agent Orange-associated ailments.
“We haven’t convinced him yet,” Brown said in a next day phone interview.
Without support from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, faces a difficult decision on whether to allow a committee vote this fall on the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 299).
“Johnny pays a lot of attention to what the VA thinks, as he should [as] chairman,” Brown said.
The Ohio senator has had several conversations with Isakson on the Blue Water bill and said he “is about as fair-minded and bipartisan a chairman as there is in the Senate.” But Brown declined to guess what Isakson will decide on HR 299 if the VA secretary continues to oppose the bill.
“If we get the VA on board, it will make this a lot easier, I’ll just answer it that way,” Brown said of prospects for the bill. “Otherwise, I think it will be hard.”
We tried polling all 15 senators on the committee to learn what impact VA opposition to HR 299 has had on their support for the bill. A spokesman for Isakson said only that he “is actively working” with the VA, outside stakeholders and his committee “on a path forward on this legislation.”
Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), noted they are original co-sponsors of a near identical Senate bill. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the bill should be passed and signed into law “without delay.” A “disappointed” Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he wrote to Wilkie, urging him to reconsider his opposition. And Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said he still is reviewing HR 299 and working with colleagues to do “what is best” for Veterans.
Meanwhile, pressure on Isakson builds. Every major Veterans’ group and most military associations urged him this week to move the bill out of committee. Their volley of letters responded to Wilkie’s own Sept. 6 letter to Isakson expanding on why VA opposes extending benefits to Veterans who served on ships off Vietnam and have ailments associated with exposure to dioxin in Agent Orange.
Wilkie noted again that the latest review of available scientific evidence by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), from 2011, concluded that exposure of shipboard personnel to defoliants sprayed over Vietnam “cannot reasonably be determined.” Also, he said, Navy ships were required to draw seawater for conversion to shipboard potable water 12 miles from any river, making the presence of Agent Orange “highly unlikely” and the “dilution factor would have been significant.”
He also criticized how the House-passed bill would pay part of the cost of expanding benefits to Blue Water Vets by ending an exemption from VA home loan funding fees for certain disabled Veterans, those not rated fully and permanently disabled and seeking jumbo loans. The amount of such loans can start as low $453,100, or as high as $679,650, depending on local housing market prices.
If HR 299 becomes law, Wilkie wrote, on a home loan of $500,000 “a disabled Veteran could be required to pay $12,000 to the VA in funding fees (plus interest if rolled into the life of the loan) rather … $11,725 as a down payment, which results in home equity.”
Advocates for Blue Water Veterans argue Wilkie and staff have fallen into a previous pattern of “cherry-picking” information from scientific reports to conclude there is no scientific basis to support extending Agent Orange-related benefits. They also criticize a fresh VA estimate on the cost of HR 299 — $5.5 billion over 10 years — as wildly high and claim VA exaggerates the impact on home-buying Veterans of planned funding fee increases, particularly for disabled Veterans.
Former surface warfare officer, retired Navy commander and lawyer John B. Wells, who has served as general counsel to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, considers himself the technical expert on the science and shipboard practices that, he argues, support extending Agent Orange benefits.
The Slidell, Louisiana, attorney also is executive director of a nonprofit corporation that litigates and advocates for Veterans and trains other attorneys on Veterans’ law. Wells complained to Wilkie that VA staff for Blue Water issues have no naval operational experience or expertise in hydrology, thermodynamics and other relevant sciences for determining how Agent Orange reached sailors at sea.
“The VA consistently cherry picks through the (IOM) reports taking phrases out of context to support their position,” Wells wrote.
A conclusion VA ignores from a 2008 IOM report is that the evidence its research committee “reviewed makes limiting Vietnam service to those who set foot on Vietnamese soil seem inappropriate.”
The same report said: “Given the available evidence, the committee recommends that members of the Blue Water Navy should not be excluded from the set of Vietnam-era Veterans with presumed herbicide exposure.”
Regarding the 2011 report finding that Agent Orange exposure by Blue Water Veterans “could not reasonably be determined,” it needs context, Wells said.
“What [IOM] actually said was: This lack of information makes it impossible to quantify exposures for Blue Water and Brown Water Navy sailors and, so far, for ground troops as well,” Wells wrote. Therefore, IOM couldn’t “state with certainty whether Blue Water Navy personnel were or were not exposed to Agent Orange.”
While the IOM was told Navy ships did not typically make potable water within 12 miles of shore, Wells said it also was told that in exceptional circumstances a ship might take up water for distillation close to the coastline.
Mike Yates, national commander of Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, wrote separately to Isakson. Among points he made was that naval gunfire support data show many ships operated within three nautical miles of the Vietnam coast for periods long enough to mandate water distillation. Also, some Navy ships were provided potable water from barges operating from shore, a practice not known to the IOM before it produced its 2011 report.
More arguments are made in two joint letters to Isakson in mid-September. One is from The Military Coalition, a consortium of 27 Veterans groups and military associations, and another from Veteran service organizations: Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and Paralyzed Veterans of America.
The second letter reflects a consequential shift of position. The four large Vet groups all now agree they do not support imposing new fees on any service-connected disabled Veteran, even for jumbo home loans. Disabled Veterans “have already paid with their service, and we therefore urge the Committee to strike this provision from HR 299 before passing the legislation.”
If the senators embrace that change, they would have to find other budget offsets to cover the cost of the bill, which VA contends already were woefully inadequate in the House bill to satisfy balanced-budget law requirements. Also, any change to HR 299 would require the bill’s return to the House to be voted on again, increasing the risk that the 115th Congress will run out of time to pass a Blue Water Navy bill.
In that case, advocates would have to restart their quest in 2019 with a mix of lawmakers significantly altered by November’s election.