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Veterans group sues VA over alleged use of toxic herbicides on Guam

This aerial view of Naval Base Guam shows Apra Harbor with several vessels in port on March 5, 2016.

JEFF LANDIS/U.S. NAVY

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 17, 2020

Veterans who say troops were exposed to harmful chemicals on Guam, including the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange, are suing the government.

Military Veterans Advocacy, a Louisiana-based group, filed suit against Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie in a Washington, D.C., court July 10 seeking a review of his decision not to issue the rules that would help veterans’ claims for herbicide exposure on Guam, the group said in a statement Monday.

In its lawsuit the group decries the decision, outlined in a May 12 letter signed by Paul Lawrence, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, that conceded the use of commercial herbicides on Guam.

The letter stated that “despite the presence of chemical components similar to tactical herbicides, injuries resulting from commercial herbicides were not compensable,” the lawsuit states.

The VA went on to dismiss the presence of tactical herbicides on Guam, because of a lack of shipping documentation, the lawsuit states.

The advocacy group’s chairman, former Navy commander John Wells, in the statement said the goal is to force the government to address toxic exposure of troops in the Pacific.

“We have definitive proof of the presence of dioxin and other toxic chemicals on Guam 40 years after the last known use,” he said. “We also have affidavits, that we have provided the VA, from personnel who sprayed the herbicide.”

A report released May 11 by the National Veterans Legal Services Program and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School states veterans who served on Guam between 1962 and 1975 meet the legal standard for exposure and may have valid claims to service-related disabilities.

However, the VA disputed the report’s findings in a May 19 email to Stars and Stripes.

“There is no evidence agent orange was ever used on Guam,” wrote VA press secretary Christina Noel.

VA spokesman Randal Noller said in an email Thursday that the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

“However, VA encourages all Veterans who feel their military service has affected their health to submit a claim, which will be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis and based on all relevant evidence, as well as any materials submitted by the Veteran,” he said.

The advocacy group cited another recent report prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that analyzed soil samples taken in October 2019. According to the statement, the report noted: “It is probable that TCDD dioxin congener concentrations detected in soils are associated with chlorinated herbicides.”

The soil samples were taken at locations identified by former Military Veterans Advocacy board member Brian Moyer, who also founded the Agent Orange Survivors of Guam group. Moyer served as a Marine on Guam and remembers the spraying, according to the statement.

Agent Orange is an herbicide that was widely used during the Vietnam War that has been linked to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.

The advocacy group’s executive director, former Air Force officer Rob Maness, who also served on Guam, said in the statement: “It is a shame that veterans have to fight for their benefits when the vast weight of the evidence indicates exposure. The VA’s denial was simply irrational.”

Wells, who along with Moyer has advocated in Congress and with the VA to provide coverage, predicted that the court would be sympathetic to the veterans.

“Unfortunately, the VA has a well-deserved reputation of delaying and denying claims until the veteran dies,” Wells said. “Hopefully the court will force them to do their job.”

robson.seth@stripes.com
Twitter: @SethRobson1

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