Local veterans advocates applauded the House of Representatives on Monday for advancing legislation to help Navy veterans of the Vietnam War receive compensation for health issues associated with exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
The bill, known as the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, would include certain naval Vietnam veterans who could be entitled to compensation for health conditions associated with exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs moved the bill out of committee May 10.
“I am very excited about this,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Flaherty, director of Columbia County Veterans Services. “I have been working on this issue for more than 17 years now. I hope this will fly through both houses this year.”
Planes dropped Agent Orange and the wind could have carried it to shore, Flaherty said, arguing off-shore naval veterans could also have been exposed to the chemical.
“If the ship was just off-shore and planes dropped Agent Orange, the wind could blow it to the ship,” Flaherty said. “It could have also gone into the water that the ship recycles for use. You cannot tell me those veterans could not have been exposed.”
Naval veterans who served in the Vietnam War but did not enter the southeast Asian country past the shore are not entitled to compensation under the current law. Advocates argue such veterans could have just as easily been exposed to the toxic chemical.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 extended disability compensation to Vietnam veterans who served between 1962 and 1975 and exhibited a disease indicative of Agent Orange exposure.
But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs interpreted the law only to cover veterans who served on Vietnam’s mainland or on the inland waterways.
Some veterans in Columbia County could benefit from the passage of the Blue Water bill, Flaherty said.
“I know quite a few people who could file immediately after the passage of the bill,” Flaherty said. “I suspect I have known people who have died due to Agent Orange exposure and did not receive compensation, but they would not have been diagnosed that way. There are sailors who have cancer who really need help.”
Many veterans in Greene County could also benefit from passage of the bill, Greene County Veterans Services Director Michelle Romalin Black said.
“Though I couldn’t give an exact number of local Blue Water Navy veterans who’ve sought assistance from my office, I can definitely say that number is well into the hundreds,” Black said. “I just could not fathom how these veterans who were, say, 15 to 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Tonkin, who had been showered with the overspray of these tactical chemicals, could be written off — considered not exposed — for the purpose of presumptive service-connection of well-known disabilities, caused by the nefarious Agent Orange.”
Some of the other health complications Blue Water Vietnam veterans face have no other likely cause but exposure to the chemical, Black said.
“In most of these cases, these veterans are clearly affected by conditions that have no other likely cause — not familial, or connected to their environment or other illnesses post-service,” Black said.
People who were exposed to Agent Orange are at an elevated risk for several diseases, including chronic B-cell leukemias, Type 2 diabetes, 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, according to the website for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The final bill will most likely stipulate the ship had to be within 12 miles of the shore because that is what the original bill said,” Flaherty said. “That will include a lot of people.”
The bill has been a long time coming, Flaherty said, and he is waiting for the day when he can tell the veterans he serves to apply for compensation.
“People call all the time for updates on legislation,” Flaherty said. “Members of Congress always say it will cost too much money, but if a veteran dies of cancer from Agent Orange exposure, how do you calculate the money for that? I just want to call the veterans and tell them it is done, not just say it is looking good and it not happen.”
U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-19, called the legislation a necessity.
“Agent Orange has had a devastating effect on the health of exposed veterans and we still do not know the full array of complications due to exposure,” Faso said. “Our veterans deserve access to the benefits that they have earned, and in this case, Blue Water Navy veterans were wronged simply due to when and where they were exposed to these toxins. This legislation is needed and I hope it is passed by Congress as quickly as possible.”