TOWN OF RICHMOND — Rick Wooley remembers his Naval commanding officer talk about Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
“He said the chemical wasn't supposed to harm anything but the green foliage it was used to destroy,” Wooley recalls. “He said time would tell.”
When the war ended, Agent Orange revealed its true color.
The powerful mixture of chemical defoliants left a legacy of devastating health problems among returning U.S. service personnel, their families and the Vietnamese.
Today, most veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service do not have to prove a connection between 14 diseases and their service to be eligible to receive VA health care and disability compensation.
The VA presumes that Agent Orange causes a list of specific illnesses, including several cancers and coronary heart disease.
But many Navy vets, such as Wooley, are the exception.
Open-sea ships were not presumed to be close enough to land to be exposed to Agent Orange, according to the Veterans Administration.
When Wooley filed a claim for coronary heart disease related to Agent Orange exposure, the VA denied it because he never had his boots on the ground in Vietnam, he said.
The so-called blue water vets must actually have stepped foot on land or served on Vietnam's inland waterways to be presumed to have been exposed to herbicides. Those who did not come ashore must show how they were exposed to get compensation.
Wooley of rural Delavan wants to raise awareness about the issue, which he believes can impact all vets.
If the VA can exclude certain classes of veterans in the Vietnam War, what future decision will the agency make to exclude certain classes of vets in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars? he asks.
Wooley served aboard a U.S. destroyer in Vietnam's Mekong Delta for several months in 1966. When he came home, he worked as an IBM technician for 26 years.
The VA diagnosed him with service-related post traumatic stress disorder a few years ago. Wooley is treated for the condition and heart disease at a VA hospital in Milwaukee. Since 2010, the VA has covered the costs.
Wooley knows Navy colleagues who are suffering.
“I have a lot of friends who can't get medical care or benefits,” the 68-year-old said. “I care about these people. It makes me bitter. Some have given up and don't have the fight in them anymore. I believe the VA has cheated them out of what they deserve.”
Wooley hopes Congress will do something.
Rep. Chris Gibson of New York has introduced legislation to extend presumptive coverage for Agent Orange exposure to blue water vets, who served up to 12 miles offshore of Vietnam. As of last month, more than half of members in the House got behind the bill, which is in the Veterans Affairs Committee and has bipartisan support.
Four representatives from Wisconsin have backed the legislation. Rep. Paul Ryan of the 1st Congressional District is among the four who have not.
“Congressman Ryan is aware of the legislation,” said Kevin Seifert, press secretary for Ryan. “He will follow the bill as it makes its way through the committee process.”
Several previous attempts in Congress to change the requirement have been unsuccessful.
Wooley would like to ask representatives a simple question: Are veterans of the Vietnam War at least as important as a rubber tree?
The U.S. military used more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange to eliminate forest cover that might hide enemy troops or crops that might feed them. Those in charge of spraying excluded targets within 12 miles of a large Michelin rubber plantation because of the possibility that spray or vapor drift might affect the health of the trees.
“Why do they not acknowledge that veterans within 12 miles could also be affected?” Wooley said.
A toxic chemical in the herbicide known as dioxin has been linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, prostate and other cancers, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson's disease.
Meagan Lutz of the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., said the VA asked the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine to review the medical and scientific evidence regarding possible exposure of blue water sailors to Agent Orange and other herbicides.
A report released in May 2011 concluded that there was not enough information for the institute to determine whether sailors were or were not exposed to Agent Orange.
“In summary, it lacked evidence,” Lutz said. “Eligibility for benefits by blue water vets is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. If they can prove that they were on land in Vietnam, then we can recognize them for exposure.”
She said there is no minimum time that they needed to spend ashore.
“If I had boots on the ground, the VA would automatically assume that Agent Orange is the reason for my heart disease,” Wooley said. “If someone left the ship to deliver mail, the VA would presume the vet was exposed. That's how silly this whole rule is.”
Wooley's ship sometimes came within a mile of shore to provide gunfire support to troops on the ground. He and his colleagues were awarded a Combat Action Ribbon for a mission that saved the lives of U.S. Marines.
Wooley believes sailors were exposed to Agent Orange when wind blew the chemical off shore and when they converted sea water to potable drinking water.
He cites an Australian study which showed that desalination enhanced the toxicity of Agent Orange.
Wooley was startled when he learned the fate of some of his colleagues.
“I found out many people from our ship had cancers,” Wooley said. “My commanding officer died of cancer in 1998.”
John Rossie leads the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, which is advocating for the VA rule change.
“It is the responsibility of the government to care for wounded soldiers,” Rossie said. “The damage done by Agent Orange is a war-time injury, no different than being shot.”
He explained that Vietnam vets got help when Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991. The legislation provided that vets who served in Vietnam, including sailors, were presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and were automatically approved for disability ratings.
But the VA began limiting coverage in 2002 to those who had served on land and inland waters. In 2008, a Court of Appeals upheld the decision in Haas v. Peake.
In the previous Congress, the Congressional Budget Office said it would cost $140 million to extend benefits to blue water vets in 2015.
Rossie said it is difficult to estimate how many vets would apply for benefits.
He understands the importance of numbers, but he wants representatives to keep something else in mind.
“We can talk about statistics,” Rossie said. “But we are continuously reminding people that we are talking about American lives.”