VA Turns Back on Navy Vietnam Veterans Suffering from Agent Orange Diseases
For the past year, most Americans are aware of many problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA.) The media has done an excellent job reporting the excessive backlog in processing veteran medical claims, the unsatisfactory amount of time it takes for veterans to get appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, the cooking of the books by VA hospital officials trying to satisfy the VA bureaucrats in the Washington headquarters, and the procurement irregularities associated with the billions of annual VA expenditures.
What has not been reported by the media and not being addressed by the VA is the grave injustice to thousands of Vietnam veterans, who have died or are dying from cancers and other deadly diseases caused by their exposure to lethal defoliants while serving on U.S. Navy ships in the Vietnam Theater of War.
The United States military sprayed over 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. The goal of this program was to defoliate the jungle to deprive the enemy of food supplies and enemy sanctuaries. The most common of these herbicides was known as Agent Orange – one of the most deadly cancer causing dioxins ever synthesized by man.
Agent Orange found its way to streams, rivers, harbors, and eventually the South China Sea where they were ingested by Navy ships. Warships would suck up this contamination during the shipboard water purification process off shore and on the aircraft carriers farther out at sea. Agent Orange contamination also entered the ventilation systems on these ships as a result of the wind–just as radioactive particles from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor covered the USS Ronald Reagan Battle Group, operating 60 miles off the coast of Japan, following the tsunami in 2011.
Due to the high number of veterans who contracted Agent Orange related diseases, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991 which declared any veteran who served on active duty in the Vietnam Theater of War (ashore or afloat) from 1962 to 1975, and has a disease attributed to Agent Orange dioxins would be presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and eligible for service connected medical treatment and disability benefits.
However, in 2002, the VA, without medical or scientific evidence, changed the criteria for presumption of exposure from personnel holding a Vietnam Service Medal to only those veterans with “boots on ground” or in the “Brown Water Navy” (on patrol-boats or smaller ships operating on inland waterways.) This arbitrary decision rescinded presumption of exposure for those sailors and marines serving at sea in the “Blue Water Navy” and the Vietnam Theater of War , including those operating or anchored in Da Nang and other Vietnam bays and harbors.
The VA’s decision to support only those who served ashore or in the Brown Water Navy appears to be funding related and does not account for the operational aspects of how Agent Orange was delivered to the battlefield. Numerous scientific studies done by the CDC, the Institute of Medicine and the Australian VA proved sailors at sea were exposed to these dioxins. Incredibly, the VA refuses to accept that Blue Water Navy ships were contaminated by wind blown and water borne Agent Orange dioxins, and as a result Vietnam-era Blue Water Veterans continue to suffer and die from the debilitating health effects of Agent Orange and their families suffer overwhelming financial problems without VA support.
The House (HR969) and Senate (S681) have bills in process to re-establish their intent in the Agent Orange Act of 1991, but VA Secretary McDonald can right this long standing injustice with the stroke of his pen under the authority given to the VA in the 1991 law. It is time that we reverse this unfair decision that affects our remaining Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans who are suffering from Agent Orange related diseases, and I urge all readers to write to Secretary McDonald and their members of Congress to right this terrible wrong.
Vice Admiral Ed Straw, USN Retired
New York City