The USS Ronald Reagan and her gallant crew of men and women recently performed a heroic service for thousands after the devastating earthquake and tsunami on the east coast of northern Japan. They just don’t know it yet.
Davenport, a Navy public affairs officer during the Vietnam war. It shows U.S. Navy Ships with the coast of Vietnam clearly visible in the background.
The Reagan, and her carrier strike group, USS Chancellorsville and USS Preble, were nearly 100 miles offshore when they were engulfed by what the Navy described as: “A month’s radiation in just one hour.” The 7th Fleet command quickly repositioned these ships after contamination was detected aboard. If anyone in Washington has common sense, the incident should bring an end to the long and contentious war by the Department of Veterans Affairs against sailors of the Vietnam War who were exposed to Agent Orange.
But because Washington, D.C., is the last place anyone would expect to find common sense, and because this story involves the worst in bureaucratic confusion and ineptitude as well as a callous disregard for the plight of men who once sailed in harm’s way in our nation’s defense, this story is being written from a small town in Pennsylvania. It’s a disgraceful nightmare not only to these Veterans, but in many cases their families with only the widows left to fend for themselves as their husbands have paid the ultimate price for serving their country.
The Navy Veterans who are still alive are all over 50. They manned the decks of the greatest navy in the world, on ships large and small, determined mostly by the luck of the draw. And it was this luck of the draw that has now left the majority of them without benefits for their service. Senior bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seem relentlessly determined to prevent Navy Veterans of the Vietnam War from receiving benefits that are automatically granted to all other Vietnam Veterans.Veterans Affairs officials made a decision to cut off previously granted benefits by reinterpreting their own regulations, and as a result, have left thousands of Navy Veterans to suffer and die without disability and health benefits from the government that sent them to that distant war. It was a war that I firmly believe caused their illnesses.
Agent Orange is the term used to describe the dioxin-laced herbicides that were repeatedly sprayed over Vietnam to defoliate the jungles. The goal was to eliminate hiding places for enemy soldiers. The term originated from the orange stripe around the barrels of chemicals. Most of this deadly stuff was flown out of the large base at Da Nang, Vietnam, under the mission term Operation Ranch Hand. Literally, tons of it were dumped by multiengine aircraft, often three and four abreast. On the one hand, it did its job. Untold acres of Vietnam’s jungles were turned into a deadly wasteland. But it also exposed American servicemen and women to a chemical that now has them dying on average 13 years earlier than their counterparts who did not serve in Vietnam. This despite the manufacturers, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, assuring the government, that all was safe.
After years of denial in a prolonged battle by Vietnam Veterans, the government finally acknowledged the disabilities likely caused by Agent Orange, and a system was established to process claims for those who now have one or more of the diseases recognized by the VA as likely linked to exposure to these chemicals. The National Academy of Sciences was charged with determining which diseases were connected to Agent Orange. The list includes many cancers, multiple myeloma, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, among others.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 provided for benefits to all who had earned the Vietnam Service Medal during the 10-year war. The legislation was clear: Anyone who served, whether on land or sea, was presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. For many, it was too late, including Lt. Elmo R. Zumwalt III, the son of then Vice Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr, commander of Naval Forces, Vietnam.The younger Zumwalt was a swift boat skipper who died of cancer in 1988 at age 42. It also was too late for my friend, Marine Capt. Robert B. Scholl, whom I had talked into joining up with me in 1958. Bob flew 324 combat missions out of Da Nang during two tours, one in F4 Phantoms, the second as a helicopter gunship pilot. He died of cancer at 52.His younger brother, Jim, would follow him into the Marines, to Da Nang, and into the grave from cancer. Several other personal friends of mine have gone the same way, from the same cause.
After 1991, Veterans were able to apply for disability benefits when they were stricken with deadly cancers. Besides their diagnosis, all they needed to submit was proof of Vietnam service on their Department of Defense Form 214. To this day, for Veterans of the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, the process remains clear and fast. You were there, you have it, you are eligible. But shamefully, that is not the way it works for Navy Veterans. As far as the VA is concerned, most Navy Vietnam Veterans were never there and are not entitled to Agent Orange benefits, even though the government of Australia has shown that its Vietnam naval Veterans are dying at a higher rate than counterparts who served on the ground.
VA bureaucrats did not seem to warm to the idea of Agent Orange benefits in the first place. This was something that had been imposed upon them by Congress. Implementing this new disability benefit was going to be cumbersome, costly and impose upon their authority to determine which Veterans would get what. Nevertheless, in 1990, VA regulations defined service in Vietnam to include “service in the waters offshore or service in other locations if the service involved visitation in Vietnam.” Thus, when the Agent Orange Act was passed by Congress, the simple way to determine eligibility for any Veteran who was diagnosed with one of the related disabilities was proof of service in Vietnam.
Initially, eligible Veterans, including Navy Veterans, applied for and received the disability benefits to which they were entitled.
But in 2001, George W. Bush and his administrative team, many of whom avoided service in Vietnam, were calling the shots. Within a year, Blue Water Navy Veterans would be stripped of their eligibility for Agent Orange benefits.The Bush administration bureaucrats said that sailors who served aboard ships offshore could not have been exposed to Agent Orange. Only those who could prove they had left the ship and set foot in Vietnam would be eligible for benefits. Many Navy Veterans already receiving benefits had their disability revoked and payments stopped. New claims were denied, and it was left to each individual to prove on appeal that he was exposed under the new rules. Suddenly, two new terms entered the Vietnam history books: Brown Water Navy and Blue Water Navy.
Brown Water Navy Veterans are eligible for Agent Orange benefits; Blue Water Navy Veterans are not. The Brown Water Navy referred to boats and ships that operated on inland waterways such as swift boats skippered by Zumwalt and by Lt. John Kerry, the former presidential candidate. It also included a few landing ship tanks and other amphibious naval ships and landing craft. The Blue Water Navy was composed of larger ships that operated mainly on the open seas, particularly at Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf, anywhere from several miles to 50 or more miles offshore. These were the capital ships of the Navy and their escort and supply vessels. Under the modified VA rules, sailors serving aboard a Blue Water ship had to document proof that they had gone ashore in Vietnam. Few sailors could make this claim, and even for those who could found securing actual proof next to impossible in many cases.
Ironically, there is much scientific evidence to prove that Blue Water sailors were not only exposed to Agent Orange, but probably to a greater degree than troops on the ground. Because of that evidence, sailors from Australia are granted disability benefits for Agent Orange just as U.S. sailors were until 2002. Australia conducted extensive medical and scientific research from many sources, and the government concluded that its sailors and ships were exposed to Agent Orange while sailing off the coast of Vietnam and that the water distillation process then in use by Australians, as well as the U.S. Navy, likely made the contamination worse. The most important evidence is that Australia’s sailors, most of whom stayed offshore, are contracting Agent Orange cancers at a higher rate than Australian Veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam.
The Australians did not reach their conclusions lightly. Their scientific studies were thorough and exhausting. All the evidence was there, and the government of Australia acted accordingly, in 2006 granting Agent Orange benefits to the very sailors whose ships sailed alongside ours. In the United States, VA bureaucrats also responded quickly. They began to nitpick potential flaws in the Australian scientific studies. To do otherwise would endanger their own positions.
But Blue Water sailors were not going quietly. Former Navy Cmdr. Jonathon L. Haas, who had served in Vietnam aboard the ammunition tender USS Mount Katmai, appealed his 2004 denial of benefits to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.As part of his claim, Haas testified that clouds of Agent Orange propelled by offshore prevailing winds covered his ship, much like what occurred in March 2011 to the USS Reagan battle group off Japan. Haas was represented by the National Veterans Legal Services Program and joined by a friend-of-the-court brief from the American Legion.
CAVC agreed with Haas that the regulation change by the VA was improper, a decision that effectively would have restored benefits to everyone if accepted by the VA. The VA, however, refused this change and appealed the CAVC decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which overturned CAVC, ruling that the VA had authority to change the rules. The appeals court did not, however, rule on whether the VA’s rationale for making the changes was sound.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually declined to hear Haas’ further appeal, and in January 2009, Blue Water claims, which had been put on hold pending the outcome of Haas, were now ordered to be processed, meaning they would again be denied without proof of “boots on the ground.” It didn’t matter to the VA that Haas had proved his case before CAVC. Nor did it matter that the government of Australia’s evidence had now been reinforced by U.S. studies, in particular, the Selected Cancers Study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1990, which showed that Veterans who served in Vietnam had a much higher rate of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, 50 percent, than Veterans from the same era who did not go to Vietnam. These findings were largely responsible for the subsequent passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, but there was a specific part of the CDC study that should have raised the same alarms that went off in Australia.
The study concluded that of all those millions, and all those units and designations involved, the highest incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was experienced by none other than the sailors who served aboard ships off the coast of Vietnam. We now have two studies by two governments, one that shows that Vietnam Veteran sailors, most of them Blue Water, have a higher rate of all Agent Orange cancers, and the other that shows they also have a higher rate of one Agent Orange cancer studied, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And we have a government bureaucracy that has been fighting for almost 10 years to deny benefits to these same Veterans. How would you explain it?
The VA was beginning to feel the heat from Blue Water sailors and their advocates. The sailors were organizing. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association was formed as was the Veterans Association of Sailors of the Vietnam War. National Veterans organizations continued to voice support, and ever so slight cracks began to appear in the rules.
Fortunately, for Veterans, there is a part of the VA system called the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. The BVA was established for an obvious purpose like the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The BVA is the initial appeal process for Veterans when their claims have been denied by the regional office where they originate. It is a Veteran-friendly setting, as it is not an adversarial process. There is no one from the VA there to oppose the Veteran’s arguments, but Veterans can have a lawyer or other advocate present their case if necessary. The BVA is right across the street from the VA, but it is a whole new world for Veterans seeking justice as the staff is highly professional and committed to correcting mistakes and applying sound benefit-of-the-doubt judgment to its decisions. That obviously doesn’t mean that appellant Veterans are always going to win, but if they present solid evidence, they have a chance. It was at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals that a decision was made in 2004 that should have changed the entire course of the issue of the Blue Water Navy.
On July 29, 2004, the BVA ruled Da Nang Harbor an inland waterway. The ruling involved the USS Richmond K. Turner (CG-20). Here is the wording: “The evidence of record clearly shows that Da Nang Harbor is well sheltered and surrounded on three sides by the shoreline of Vietnam. A map submitted by the Veteran and his representative indicates that the harbor is nearly totally surrounded by land and that the entire harbor is located within the territorial boundaries of Vietnam. Further, the Veteran’s description of his ability to observe the activities on the shoreline is consistent with the map’s indication of the proximity of the land ... given the location of the harbor as being surrounded by the land on three sides and the evidence that the harbor is within the territory of Vietnam, and resolving all doubt in the Veteran’s favor, the board finds that Da Nang Harbor is an inland waterway for the purposes of the regulation. Service connection for diabetes mellitus is granted.”
Later BVA decisions ruled Da Nang Harbor an inland waterway as well. In an April 6, 2009, ruling involving the USS Towers (DDG-9), the BVA came to the same conclusion with similar evidence from the Veteran appellant. The ruling states: “Da Nang Harbor appears to be located on an interior river. The city of Da Nang is surrounded by an interior bay as opposed to having direct open sea access. The Veteran reported being only a few feet from the soil while aboard the USS Towers in the Da Nang Harbor. The board finds that the evidence shows service in the interior waters of Vietnam, and consequently, the Veteran meets the requisite Vietnam service for entitlement to a presumption of herbicide exposure. Service connection for diabetes mellitus, type II is granted.”
A Nov. 2, 2009, ruling involving the USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5) used the same words as the 2004 decision. The sailor involved was granted presumptive service connection for diabetes mellitus based upon herbicide exposure. The rulings, of course, could change everything. BVA rulings are not precedents, but in these cases there can be only one interpretation: Da Nang Harbor is now considered an inland waterway for the purposes of the regulation. Any member of the crew aboard a ship while it was in Da Nang Harbor is considered to have served in the Republic of Vietnam and is granted automatic presumption for exposure to Agent Orange. The question is no longer if the ship docked or anchored and whether anyone went on land.
This, of course, was big news. However, there was no announcement of this major ruling from the VA; instead the information was posted on the Internet by the Blue Water Veterans groups. In fact, there has been no official recognition at all from the VA regarding the status of Da Nang Harbor as determined by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and claims are continuing to be wrongfully rejected.It seems the VA has chosen to ignore the rulings it disagrees with.
As recently as 2009, the VA rejected claim requests from regional offices with the following explanation: “ ... The USS Ingersoll traveled up the Saigon River on October 24th and 25th of 1965 to fire on enemy bases. No other capital ships have been confirmed by Department of Defense to have traveled the inland waterways for which herbicide exposure is conceded.” In other words, unless you were on the Ingersoll back in ’65, your claim is denied.
But the VA Compensation and Pension Service Bulletin of January 2010 added 16 ships and several entire classes of vessels to the presumption list such as all landing ship tanks, all of which, while capital ships, were unfairly stalled as Blue Water ships when they, in fact, had been proven Brown Water by the Veteran claimants. These ships, like the previous “only one ship” Ingersoll, also had operated on the Saigon River and some on the Mekong, Song Lon Tao and Long Song Tao rivers as well as Cam Ranh Bay.
The disability claims that sailors filed with the VA were mostly not for themselves but rather with the hope they could somehow provide a small pension, and more importantly, full medical benefits, to their wives as the only possible legacy of their service to our country. In far too many cases, because they had been denied disability benefits, their finances had been depleted to the point where they knew their widows would be facing poverty. This is the outrage that has been perpetrated upon these brave souls who once sailed in harm’s way for their country.
If you think I am exaggerating, here are a few postings you can easily find on the Internet at Veteran-related sites:
“Does anyone know of anyone diagnosed with Agent Orange-related diseases who served in the Vietnam Blue Water Navy 1967-1969? My husband served aboard the USS Yorktown, and he is dying from Agent Orange-related lung cancer. Even the VA doctors admit his ‘type’ of cells, etc., indicate Agent Orange exposure but VA is still denying the claim.” Anonymous poster on Sept. 6, 2010.
“Please support our Vets, they deserve our respect. I am a proud wife of a Vietnam Vet, and he is now suffering from Stage 4 prostate cancer. He was onboard the USS Constellation. Blue Water Vets deserve the same compensation as all other Vietnam Vets.” Donna, July 29, 2011
“My brother, Tom Laliberte, is in the Critical Care Cardiac Unit at Tufts’ Medical Center in Boston. For him, time is running out. Please continue supporting benefits for the remaining Blue Water sailors.” Lori Laliberte, Aug 27, 2010
“A little late for my brother who went in healthy, had three Blue Water tours in ’Nam and died at 56 years old with liver, kidney, pancreas failures and diabetes. We buried him after he threw up all his own blood from a ruptured spleen or pancreas.” James, June 15, 2011
“I am really concerned about how I will leave this world, and what will become of my wonderful wife of 28 years? It is a sad state of affairs when one who serves their country, and is put in harm’s way, that our government will not even acknowledge the Blue Water Navy. I am ashamed of my government.” Gary, July 17, 2010
“I lost my husband in July, 2010, for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after being diagnosed in July of 2009. My husband was on the USS Lynde McCormick DDG-8 from ’71 to ’75. I think it is pathetic what the government is doing to these poor guys and their families. Our youngest is only 14 and was extremely close to his dad. My husband applied for benefits in 2009, and we are still waiting. How do you explain to your children that the government is probably waiting till we die before they help those that have lost someone because of them. It is very sad that our government is doing this to their own people, but are first to jump to help other countries.” Lori Belus, Feb. 20, 2011.
My research for this piece discovered the McCormick was at Da Nang Harbor and should have been on the VA list of ships that now qualify for Agent Orange benefits, but it still isn’t. In fact, the McCormick was one of the few ships that came under fire from North Vietnam shore batteries. Rare footage on the Internet shows the ship being bracketed by gun splashes at seven miles from shore, although there were no injuries. Evidence here should finally qualify the other crew members of the McCormick for benefits.
However, as Lori Belus clearly states, it is still pathetic what the government is doing to these men, because non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma happens to be the one disability on the Agent Orange list for which all Vietnam Veterans, including Blue Water sailors, are covered. Remember that the CDC study showed that the highest incidence among all Vietnam Veterans with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was, in fact, the Veterans of the Blue Water Navy. Lori Belus’ husband already had automatic presumption, and his claim should have been approved before his untimely death. That raises another disturbing question. Why is there not emergency priority for Agent Orange claims from any Vietnam Veteran? The government already knows two things about these claims: All of the Veterans are over 50 years old, and any Agent Orange claim is a possible life-threatening situation.
The BVA ruled Da Nang Harbor an inland waterway more than seven years ago. That’s seven years that the VA could have asked the Department of the Navy to provide a list of every 7th Fleet ship that sailed into Da Nang Harbor and seven years in which disabled Navy Veterans could have received benefits and assistance from their government just as quickly as their counterparts from the other branches of service. This evidence should cause the president to immediately order the controversial rule change to be reversed and eligibility for benefits to be not only restored, but expanded, for sailors who manned the ships of the 7th Fleet. Proof that these separate and clear rulings on Da Nang Harbor have apparently gone ignored by the VA bureaucracy is to be found in instructions to regional offices handling claims.
A Sept. 9, 2010, memo from the director of compensation and pension service states: “C&P Service considers open water ports such as Da Nang, Cam Ranh Bay and Vung Tau as extensions of ocean waters and not inland waterways.” To further demonstrate how ridiculous this is, the C&P Service explains: “This is illustrated by a quote from the 1967 ship’s history of the USS Cleveland (LPD-7), which states: 'Da Nang Harbor is easy to enter due to being open to the sea.' ” This is bureaucratic insanity at its best. An offhand quote from a sailor in 1967, totally meaningless to the question, has been blocking benefits to tens of thousands of Veterans who continue to suffer and die from their service while solid evidence to the contrary has been evaluated and ruled upon on three occasions by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
It’s shameful. Individual sailors are left to themselves to develop a successful claim for Agent Orange as nobody at the VA is going to help them. If they are lucky enough to learn about the Da Nang Harbor ruling in the first place, which by all rights should make them eligible, they are told by the VA they must provide the deck logs of their ship to support their claim. Few Veterans, and hardly any spouses or widows, know how to do this. But the information is there, and anyone who bothers to look will see that nearly every ship, if not all, that went to Vietnam from 1962 until 1975 was at Da Nang Harbor at some time, even the largest aircraft carriers such as USS Independence, Kitty Hawk, Enterprise, Saratoga and Coral Sea. So was the famed battleship USS New Jersey, which took her place at the “Man of War” outer anchorage in September 1968, and the USS Fox (CG-33), which carried Lt. Robert Upshur Woodward, a naval intelligence officer later known as Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.
More important than the ships themselves were the men aboard. The highest number of Navy Vietnam Veterans is shown at MilitaryUSA.Com, which gives the total as 242,491. Other sources show the number serving in Vietnam as 174,000, out of 229,000 in all of Southeast Asia. Even so, during hearings before congressional committees considering previous Agent Orange equity acts and the now all-important subject of cost, VA representatives testified that if the regulation were restored to cover all sailors, it would result in more than 800,000 new claims. It is an outlandish figure, but even that should not detract from the fact that no matter the actual number, all who served honorably deserve the benefits Congress intended.
It is vitally important that all survivors know there is no time limit on filing a claim for a survivor’s pension. All widows who remain single, even those remarried and later divorced, are entitled to file for the monthly pension and benefits their husbands earned for them by their sacrifice. What happened recently to the USS Reagan battle group off the coast of Japan is what the Blue Water Navy faced every day off the coast of Vietnam.
In all of the so-called studies about Agent Orange, none has focused on the one thing to which sailors have testified: that the stuff often appeared in cloud form, in addition to being mostly invisible. And that is why service aboard any ship that saw Vietnam service must be granted presumption, no matter when the service occurred.
Most capital ships had at least two tours, and ammunition and supply ships had eight to 10 tours. On each tour, each ship was exposed to potential herbicide contamination every day for months at a time. I suspect that contamination could have easily gotten into the shipboard ventilation and water systems. The president could order the Department of Veterans Affairs to ask the Department of the Navy for the U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam Monthly Historical Summaries 1965-1973, which will show the monthly history of every ship in the 7th Fleet.
The Monthly Historical Summary shows that 100 ships of the 7th Fleet were at Da Nang Harbor in June 1967 alone. Research for this story also unearthed another 132 ships that were at Da Nang Harbor, containing a total of 78,205 crewmen who should always have been eligible for benefits, according to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. These facts alone, in the name of common sense, should persuade the president to order that Agent Orange eligibility be immediately restored to all Navy Veterans of the Vietnam War. It is way past time to stop this nonsense of denying these Veterans the same coverage as other Veterans of Vietnam.
This was an administrative rule change by the bureaucracy without warning or notice to anyone. It was a slap in the face to the intent of Congress, which nevertheless allowed the Veterans Administration to do as it pleased for years. If more proof of nonsense is needed, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science just completed another exhaustive study, this one ordered, and presumably paid for by the VA and reported on May 20, 2011: “Lack of essential data make it impossible to say whether Blue Water Navy Veterans — who served aboard deep-sea vessels during the Vietnam War — face higher, lower or the same risk as other Vietnam Veterans for long-term health problems associated with exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides. It is plausible that service personnel assigned to deep-sea ships could have come into contact with the herbicides, but the military carried out no measurements of herbicide concentrations in the atmosphere or waterways or of service members’ exposures during the war, so efforts to extrapolate from limited data on air and water currents and personnel locations provide insufficient data on air and water currents, and personnel locations provide insufficient information to make determinations.” Once again, common sense goes out the window in Washington.
First, if it is “plausible” that they were exposed, then why are we still resisting granting them benefits? What happened to the vaunted concept of benefit of the doubt? The military did not take measurements during the war because the military thought at the time there was no danger from Agent Orange. The notion that there was limited data on air currents is nonsense. Every sailor knows that the prevailing winds from Vietnam are constantly blowing offshore. My high school classmate and lifelong friend, Retired Vice Admiral Edward Straw, testified to Congress during the summer about prevailing winds in Vietnam and the scientific evidence of the USS Reagan, to no avail. Congress has repeatedly shown it is incapable of correcting this injustice to its own intents.
President Obama can and should resolve this issue. This is, in its simplest terms, really only a matter of regulation. I am calling on President Obama to award benefits to all Veterans who served on any ship that earned the Vietnam Service Medal. He is commander in chief of our armed forces, and he also is head of the government bureaucracy. Will he side with the bureaucrats or will he side with Veterans?Will he side with Florence Langston of Carl Junction, Mo., whose husband, Bruce, a 20-year Navy Veteran, lost his battle with Agent Orange in 2010, leaving his widow to continue his decadelong battle with the VA for rightful benefits? Her story was in Legion magazine in March.
In the end, may God bring rightful justice to every sailor who ever set foot on a U.S. Navy ship that served in Vietnam waters, no matter what the color of water. There should be no such thing as a Brown Water Navy and a Blue Water Navy. It is a red, white and blue Navy. It is our Navy, and these are and were our sailors. It is past time our country treats them like the heroes they are.