Veterans advocates in Columbia and Greene counties are calling on Washington to stall no longer on legislation that would help sailors who served in Vietnam get compensation for complications caused by Agent Orange exposure.
Under current law people who served in the Navy who did not serve beyond port in Vietnam during the war are not entitled to compensation for complications that could be caused by the herbicide Agent Orange.
Only sailors who served on bodies of water inland can receive such compensation from the Bureau for Veterans Affairs.
Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Flaherty, executive director of the Columbia County Veterans Services Department, has been pushing Congress to pass legislation, called the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, that would change that law.
“They are holding Blue Water back because it will open up the gate for all the Navy veterans who have not been compensated. We have been trying to get this passed for two decades,” Flaherty said. “I am trying to get people in that situation to call up their congressperson to push them to pass this bill.”
Flaherty said he hears from a half dozen or more Navy veterans who do not qualify for the specific compensation a week, including one he met when he spoke to the local American Legion post Monday.
“One veteran who came out last night approached me and said he has cancer, but he can’t get compensation for it because he was not ‘boots on the ground,’” Flaherty said. “A lot of people come to me and they die without compensation.”
“Blue Water Navy,” refers to people on ships that never went beyond port, while compensation for Agent Orange exposure is only provided to service members who served on land, “boots on the ground,” or in patrol boats on inland bodies of water, also known as the “brown water Navy,” but Flaherty said the former could have just as easily been exposed to the deadly herbicide.
“They are finding new places where Agent Orange was released. They dropped Agent Orange at Fort Drum at one time,” Flaherty said. “Say a ship pulls into port at Saigon and planes were still dropping Agent Orange. The wind could have blown it to port.”
Flaherty said the water the ships recycle for use by the crew could have also been contaminated.
“These herbicides were sprayed from the air. I have assisted many, many Blue Water Navy veterans suffering from presumptive conditions attributed to dioxin herbicide exposure, who have recounted memories of planes spraying directly overhead while serving on vessels in the territorial seas of the Republic of Vietnam,” said Greene County Veterans Service Agency Director Michelle Romalin Black, who was discharged from the Air Force in 1997. “Other veterans have been exposed while serving on vessels that carried the herbicide, and still others have been exposed by drinking water siphoned and distilled aboard ship, or aerial application carried by wind currents.”
Black said that Greene County passed a resolution in 2014 calling for the changes the bill would make.
“Former U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson had introduced two similar bills to the House in 2013 and again in 2015,” Black said. “The notion that dioxin herbicides hit a certain imaginary perimeter, and stopped spreading via wind or water current, is foolish, and detrimental to those Blue Water Navy veterans who are denied VA benefits such as compensation and in some cases even access to VA health care, for health conditions that clearly related to dioxin exposure.”
The bill is in the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, where it has sat since U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced the bill in February.
“The ones we need to get on board are the senators,” Flaherty said. “The [House of Representatives] passed it last year, but it died in the Senate.”
House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held hearings on the bill, which has the support of 299 representatives from both parties, in April, but nothing has been done with it since.
“This is legislation that has broad, bipartisan support, because it’s the right thing to do for our veterans,” said U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-19, who cosponsors the bill. “Every person who put on the uniform and sacrificed for the sake of their country deserves treatment for injuries or exposures they endured while in service to our nation.”
Faso said the delay on passing the legislation is a debate on how to fund the compensation claims.
“Those who served in Vietnam on land and were exposed to Agent Orange are covered; while those who served in the Navy offshore are not similarly treated. This is not fair to Navy personnel who were exposed to Agent Orange while serving on ships off the coast of Vietnam,” Faso said. “The delay in passage is determining appropriate means to pay for this coverage and I fully support bipartisan efforts to resolve this issue.”