Congressman meets with Navy vets exposed to Agent Orange

A U.S. Huey helicopter sprays Agent Orange over Vietnam.


By STEPHANIE MENDERS | The Norwich Bulletin (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 7, 2018

NORWICH, Conn. – Paul Dillon and Bill Johnstone have a lot in common -- both men served aboard the USS Providence and the USS Oklahoma City during the Vietnam War and now both men are struggling with the impacts of Agent Orange exposure. But soon, Navy veterans like Dillon and Johnstone may be eligible for health benefits under a new congressional agreement.

"Most of the men I know have been affected," Dillon, 80 of Gales Ferry, said.

"People don't think Navy veterans could have been exposed but the truth is, we were," the 72-year-old Johnstone, of New Britain, said.

More than 20 million gallons of the herbicide Agent Orange were sprayed throughout the Vietnamese jungles to remove foliage during the war and much of the chemical ended up in the nearby rivers and ocean. A toxic chemical in the herbicide known as TCDD has since been connected to diagnoses for 14 health conditions including non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, various cancers, Type II Diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-2nd District) met with four blue water veterans on Friday to talk about the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which passed through the House on June 25 but still has to face the Senate. The act would restore and expand benefits for blue water vets, he said.

Courtney said the legislation is "long overdue" and he is watching it "like a hawk."

In 2002, the Veterans Affairs office stopped giving benefits to sailors exposed to the toxin and limited the scope of the 1991 Agent Orange Act to provide benefits only for veterans who could prove they were boots on the ground in Vietnam. It is estimated that 90,000 sailors served off the coast of the Vietnam coastline during the war. Those blue water veterans were required to file individual claims to restore their benefits, which would then be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Seventy-eight-year-old blue water veteran Lenny Robbins, of Gales Ferry, said navy veterans may have been exposed to a more potent, concentrated Agent Orange.

"When we were on ships, we were drinking distilled water," he said. "The toxins were in the water, which actually made it stronger. That's what all of us were drinking."

Fellow blue water veteran Wayne Burgess, 73, of Uncasville, said he has kept in touch with many of his shipmates. He said he was just notified that two shipmates who swam off the coast of Vietnam have had major problems with prostate cancer.

"Of course at the time we were worried about sea snakes," he said. "They were just trying to enjoy some R and R away from their daily duties... but of course they've had major problems with exposure to Agent Orange."

Though Johnstone lives in New Britain, which is not included in Courtney's district, he said he has been contacting as many politicians as possible about the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act.

"This isn't just a local issue. It's not even just a Connecticut issue," he said. "This is national."

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