Agent Orange decision turns attention to 'blue water' veterans
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 18, 2015
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs’ decision to grant Agent Orange benefits to C-123 crews raised concerns on Capitol Hill on Thursday for another class of potential victims: “blue water” sailors.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Congress should follow the decision by granting the same benefits to hundreds of thousands of sailors who served aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers and other large Navy ships in Vietnamese waters during the war there.
Bills introduced in the Senate and House this year would do that — though their legislative prospects remain uncertain. Navy veterans have been pushing for at least a decade to be covered for Agent Orange-related conditions along with Vietnam-era troops deployed on the ground and to nearshore waters.
“I am pleased the VA has finally ended the wait and will now provide disability benefits for the Air Force veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange,” Gillibrand, who sponsored the Senate bill, said in a news release. “However, there are still hundreds of thousands of blue water Navy veterans who are being denied benefits they need and deserve because of a technicality in the law.”
The Senate bill, which is cosponsored by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., would extend presumptive VA health coverage to sailors who served in territorial waters about 12 miles from the Vietnam coast.
Gillibrand said it would reduce the VA claims backlog by immediately approving those veterans for treatment of conditions associated with herbicide exposure.
So far, the Senate bill has not made any legislative progress. A companion bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., was recently heard in committee.
The VA has expanded coverage multiple times since granting benefits for Agent Orange exposure to most troops who served in the Vietnam War.
On Thursday, it included 1,500 to 2,100 Air Force reservists and active-duty troops who flew and trained on C-123 cargo aircraft put into service in the United States in the early 1970s to the 1980s after being used to spray herbicide in the war.
The VA decided in 2002 to cover veterans who served in the “brown water” Navy patrolling rivers and inland waterways. To receive coverage, veterans must show service on a ship at the time it was docked; evidence that the ship operated for long periods in near-shore waters; that the crew went ashore; or that there were smaller ships ferrying crewmembers to the Vietnamese coast.
Navy veterans, including the Blue Water Navy Association, sued in 2006 to be included. The VA ordered an Institute of Medicine study that was inconclusive.
The study found that potable water systems in warships could have collected seawater polluted by land runoff and could have concentrated the dioxins in Agent Orange through distillation. It ultimately determined that ground troops and the brown-water sailors had a greater likelihood of exposure.
“The committee was unable to state with certainty that blue water Navy personnel were or were not exposed to Agent Orange and its associated TCDD,” the panel found, referring to a disease-causing contaminant in the herbicide.