It’s taken more than 50 years, but the dangers that Vietnam Veterans such as Keith Trexler faced during the war finally are being recognized.
Tens of thousands of sailors including Trexler — who served on ships offshore — long have been denied the same benefits that the government has granted soldiers who fought in the jungles.
“They sent us into harm’s way. They exposed us to certain things and they’re not standing by their people,” said Trexler, 71, of Whitehall Township.
The government may be forced to stand by them.
In late January, a federal appeals court ordered the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to treat sailors the same as soldiers, by presuming they were exposed to Agent Orange during the war. The court said the VA should pay them benefits for cancers and other ailments that scientists have linked to those chemicals.
Before that ruling, offshore personnel could obtain benefits related to Agent Orange only if they could prove they were exposed. There was no presumption as with personnel who had “boots on the ground” or served on boats on inland rivers, directly where the chemicals were sprayed to kill jungle growth and clear the way for combat.
As Trexler’s case illustrates, it hasn’t always been easy for offshore Veterans to prove exposure.
He contends he could have come in contact with Agent Orange, a blend of herbicides, in many ways. He said the chemicals eventually would have drained into the harbors and sea, and ship crews drank and cooked with distilled seawater. They swam in the water, too.
One of the ships he served on, the USS De Haven, operated inland on the Saigon River. Trexler was not aboard at the time, but he questions whether the ship could have spread contaminants to sailors who later sailed on it.
Those arguments weren’t enough to convince the VA, at least at first. Trexler’s benefits claim was denied in 2013. I wrote about his beef with the agency in 2015.
He kept fighting, and with help from former Congressman Charlie Dent’s office, was granted benefits in 2017 for prostate cancer and diabetes. Those are two conditions the VA recognizes as possibly stemming from exposure.
I reconnected with him recently to get his take on the court ruling, knowing it may not be the final word because the VA has the option to appeal it.
Trexler said what I thought he would: “It’s about time.”
He sees the ruling as a long overdue acknowledgement for Veterans such as him. He hopes it will make it easier for his comrades to get benefits.
And while he’s already being compensated, he hopes the ruling could help him, too. He intends to seek increased compensation, for health problems he says are side effects of his prostate surgery, and for a skin disorder on his leg and ankle.
The VA long has expressed sympathy for Veterans such as Trexler, known as “blue water Veterans,” while maintaining that science doesn’t support their claims of exposure.
The agency says herbicides that got into seawater would have been significantly diluted. It has argued that allowing additional benefits claims would add to its work backlog and cost taxpayers.
Last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost would be $894 million over the next decade if blue water Veterans were presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.
The VA estimates the cost to be much higher — $5.5 billion. It says the budget office significantly underestimated the number of eligible Veterans and their survivors, and didn’t consider that 803 new employees would be needed to handle their claims.
The budget office estimated 30,000 Veterans could qualify — and another 22,000 who may have qualified are presumed dead.
Trexler isn’t the only local blue water Vietnam Veteran who has struggled to get benefits.
I wrote last year about Barry Mensch of Whitehall, who served on a Navy hospital ship for about 11 months in 1968. In 2008, he had surgery for cancer. The VA denied his claim for Agent Orange-related benefits.
The ship he served on, the USS Sanctuary, is on a VA registry of watercraft determined to have been exposed to herbicides because it docked, sailed on inland waterways or operated close to shore with evidence that crew members went ashore.
Mensch told me he went ashore at least twice. He suspects he also came in contact with Agent Orange through helicopters that brought wounded soldiers to the ship from the battlefields. He occasionally carried stretchers from those helicopters.
His challenge is different from Trexler’s, though, and the January court ruling may not help him.
His cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, is not on the list of illnesses that the VA acknowledges stem from herbicides. So even if the court ruling means he is presumed to have been exposed, that’s not enough. He must prove his cancer was connected to military service.
He sent the VA letters from three physicians to support his claim. The VA countered that his cancer could have stemmed from smoking. So he’s at a stalemate. Mensch told me Wednesday he may not pursue the claim.
“I’m just totally frustrated,” he said. “I’m 71 years old. I’m not going to fight with them for another 10 years.”
January’s ruling, which came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, resolved a claim from another Navy Veteran, Alfred Procopio Jr. of Minnesota. He had been denied benefits for prostate cancer and diabetes.
That court ruled against blue water Veterans in a similar case in 2008. But it sided with Procopio and overturned its previous ruling. A majority of the court concluded that the law passed by Congress in 1991 to grant benefits to Vietnam Veterans — with the presumption that they were exposed to Agent Orange — was meant to apply to all who served in Vietnam, including offshore.
Judge Kathleen O’Malley wrote in a concurring opinion that the court had to follow a “pro-Veteran” canon that says if there is ambiguity regarding benefits rules for Veterans, those rules should be “liberally construed in the Veterans’ favor.”
The VA could appeal the ruling and ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it. The deadline to file an appeal is in late April. VA spokeswoman Susan Carter told me the agency is reviewing the decision “and will determine an appropriate response.”
The appropriate response would be to drop the fight and finally give Veterans their due.