Former VA secretaries join fight over Agent Orange benefits for Blue Water Navy vets
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 20, 2018
WASHINGTON — Five former Department of Veterans Affairs secretaries and more than two dozen veterans groups joined the fight this week over legislation that would extend Agent Orange benefits to tens of thousands of Navy veterans who served on ships off the coast during the Vietnam War.
The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, HR 299, aims to provide disability compensation and Department of Veterans Affairs health care to tens of thousands of former sailors who served aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships during the war. Some of them have fought for years to prove they suffered from ailments caused by the dioxin-laden herbicide Agent Orange.
HR 299 sailed through the House in June but stalled in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The issue became more divisive last week, when VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he was against the measure because of high costs and insufficient scientific evidence.
In response to Wilkie’s stance, committee members received a burst of letters in recent days.
First, former VA secretaries Robert McDonald, Anthony Principi, James Nicholson and James Peake signed a letter backing Wilkie. They urged senators to defer a decision until scientific evidence can establish a connection between Blue Water Navy veterans and Agent Orange.
"It is undisputed that these veterans are suffering and have suffered for decades, with significant strain and sacrifice by their caregivers. There is no more time to waste." - The Military Coalition, in letter to Senate.
They cited a 2011 study from the Institute of Medicine that concluded a connection “cannot be reasonably determined.”
“Throughout each of our tenures as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, we understood the importance of caring for the men and women who served our nation during the Vietnam War and who may have been exposed to toxic substances,” the McDonald, Principi, Nicholson and Peake letter reads. “Our decisions were based on the findings of the National Academy of Sciences that scientific evidence showed an association between certain illnesses and exposure to dioxin. We urge the committee to defer action on HR 299 until such a study is completed and scientific evidence is established to expand presumptions to those at sea.”
The letter drew criticism from John Wells, a retired Navy officer, who accused the secretaries of “cherry-picking” from the Institute of Medicine report. He described their opposition as a “stain on the national honor.” Wells has been fighting on behalf of Blue Water Navy veterans since 2008 with the group Military-Veterans Advocacy.
“Whether this is due to bureaucratic intransigence or incompetence, I do not know,” Wells wrote Tuesday to Senate VA committee members. “The bottom line, however, is that they have misrepresented and cherry picked evidence to support their flawed position.”
Wells, based in Louisiana, planned to travel to Washington next week to try to meet with senators. The office for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the chairman of the Senate committee, has not said when – or whether – he would schedule a vote on the bill.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin, fired in March, wrote to senators Thursday. He acknowledged there was a lack of evidence but asked senators to approve the legislation, anyway.
Shulkin wrote, as a physician, he was “trained to look at issues through the lens of scientific data.” During his tenure as secretary, he tried and failed to find more evidence to make the connection, he said. Even with further study, he doubts more evidence is likely to be found.
“As secretary, I was faced with the dilemma of what to do when there was insufficient evidence to make a reasonable conclusion,” Shulkin wrote. “I stated then – and continue to believe – that in the absence of reliable data to guide a decision, the answer must not be to simply deny benefits. When there is a deadlock, my personal belief is that the tie should be broken in “favor of the brave men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us.”
On Wednesday, 27 military and veterans organizations also wrote to senators, arguing against Wilkie’s claims.
In addition to high costs and a lack of evidence, Wilkie said the VA would not be able to handle the amount of new claims that would result from extending assistance to Blue Water Navy veterans. It would potentially cause a backlog, Wilkie wrote, and the VA would likely need 803 new employees to handle the increased workload.
“This argument is akin to the secretary positing that taking care of elderly, disabled veterans would be too much work, so it would be helpful to VA if Congress would instead continue to deny these veterans the benefits,” the 27 groups wrote in response. “This rationale is an illegitimate basis upon which to oppose this, or any, veteran benefit legislation.”
Four large veterans organizations — the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America — sent an additional letter to senators. They asked the Senate VA committee to act on the legislation during the current congressional session, which ends in December, and give the affected veterans “long-delayed justice.”