WASHINGTON - Navy veterans who served offshore during the Vietnam War appear close to winning a final battle as Congress prepares to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to restore benefits to thousands of sailors who claim exposure to Agent Orange.
The $1 billion-plus price tag - to be borne by veterans themselves through fees on VA loans -- is another of the unanticipated costs of war measured both in dollars and toxic wounds.
Gulf War Veterans are also pressing the VA to compensate them for exposure to nerve agents and other toxins. The Government Accountability Office is preparing a report on allegations of Agent Orange use in Guam during the Vietnam era, which could open the door to awards of benefits to veterans stationed there.
With little fanfare, the House Veterans Affairs Committee last month advanced legislation that restores disability pay and care for Blue Water Navy veterans that the VA stripped 16 years ago. The legislation also extends benefits to families of U.S. service members who served in Thailand and whose children suffer from spina bifida, a birth defect associated with Agent Orange exposure.
The Agent Orange Act, signed into law by George H.W. Bush in 1991, directed the VA to award benefits to Vietnam-era veterans, including those from the Navy, who had begun suffering from cancers, heart disease or any of the 14 ailments presumed to be associated with exposure to the toxic herbicide.
But in 2002, the VA excluded veterans who served offshore, many of whom claim to suffer from the same illnesses that afflict service members who fought in Vietnam jungles. The agency required that a veteran to show proof of boots on the ground or operating along an inland waterway. But new evidence shows toxins were sucked into ships serving just offshore.
Veterans Committee chair Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said in an interview that GOP leaders have promised floor time in the House for a mid-June vote.
“We didn’t want to do what we did with the World War II veterans who were exposed to mustard gas and wait till there was only 400 of them alive before we did anything,” said Roe, a physician who worries about his own exposure to Agent Orange during his service in South Korea.
With 330 co-sponsors, including 20 from Texas, the legislation seems likely to pass. The Senate is expected to approve a companion measure, and advocates say the White House has signaled that President Donald Trump will sign the restoration of benefits into law.
The VA opposes the bill, contending in a statement that “there is no known existing scientific evidence to suggest a linkage between Agent Orange exposure and service on ships offshore.” The agency is presently conducting two related studies.
The statement noted that the Institute of Medicine, which later became the national Academy of Medicine, concluded in 2011 that it was “unable to state with certainty that Blue Water Navy personnel were or were not exposed to Agent Orange.”
A study in Australia in 1998, though, concluded that when ships offshore distilled water for sailors to use, the process enriched dioxins rather than removed it, prompting the government to grant Agent Orange benefits to Royal Australian Navy sailors who had served within 100 miles from mainland Vietnam.
For years, Congress wrestled with how to pay the $1.1 billion cost of benefits but fell short of a solution.
Roe and advocates hit on an idea this year - increases fees on VA home loans that will cost service members, veterans and surviving spouses between $2 and $3 monthly, depending on the down payment. Severely disabled veterans would be exempt.
Veterans’ advocates bought into the plan after watching Congress fall short in the past.
“We would put out something to our members about how this was about to happen. They’d get their hopes up, have something to live for,” said Michael Little, executive director of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association. “Then all of a sudden it would collapse, and guys would get depressed, sad and angry. Very angry.”
Negotiations remain that will affect who among the veterans will qualify, notably definitions of territorial seas and Vietnam boundaries. A goal, according to two people close to the discussions, is making certain that the legislation includes waters that extend into the ocean.
“What we’re looking at is exactly how to define things so as to limit the VA’s discretion,” said John Wells, a former Navy commander who heads Military Veterans Advocacy, a nonprofit. “What we don’t want is for the VA to come back and define the territorial seas as a lake in Saigon.”
Wells, who was chief engineer on three Navy ships, has spearheaded litigation and assembled studies showing what he and allies regard as proof of contamination.
Vietnam waters were busy with military and civilian shipping, constantly churning up the river bottoms, where Agent Orange’s potent 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, had settled along with the unwanted byproduct dioxin.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the United States sprayed over 12 million gallons of the herbicide in Vietnam to destroy enemy cover in a program code named Operation Ranch Hand.
Wells believes that a prime method of exposure was the distillation systems on ships operating in the South China Sea using a time-honored means of desalinization.
“People at the VA who’ve worked on this had no concept of river discharges and no idea about the effects of anchoring. We’ve embarrassed them, and it’s built up a lot of resistance. It’s like, ‘we’re the VA, you can’t question us’,” Wells said.
Michael Thompson, 67, of San Antonio, was a jet mechanic on aircraft carriers during two Vietnam duty tours. He has suffered from esophageal cancer and has three of the ailments that would qualify as presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange.
“We ate it, drank it, cooked in it, washed our clothes in it and wore them all day long,” he said, referring to water distilled on board. “I would be wiping down planes coming back from direct contact with AO (Agent Orange.)”
New VA criteria would raise his disability rating to 100 percent, eliminating co-pays at the VA and yielding modest benefits.
“I wouldn’t have to worry about becoming a pawn in some budgetary battle in Congress down the line,” he said.
Richard Shafer, of Crosby, served as a radarman on a destroyer and guided missile cruiser that anchored in 35 feet of water in Da Nang Harbor, 200 yards from shore. He recalled a runoff canal from an Agent Orange storage area that delivered herbicide contamination directly into those waters.
Shafer, 70, a former air traffic controller, has three of the ailments that would be covered under the legislation - prostate cancer, systemic heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. After fighting for six years for compensation, his appeal was denied in 2016.
“Had I known back in 1969 that I was being poisoned, I would have taken a lot better notes and pictures,” he said.
“It’s the principle of the thing. You’re making old veterans, and we’re in our late sixties and our seventies now, fight for what the government promised. You promised you’d take care of me and you’re not taking care of me. We have to fight for everything we get, and that’s just wrong,” he said.