Right a wrong
There are thousands of Vietnam veterans who never set foot on Vietnam soil.
They never sloshed through a rice paddy or traversed the country’s inland waterways.
Yet they are suffering major health problems, including serious and rare cancers and neurological illnesses, consistent with exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic chemical containing dioxin that has long faded from the public’s consciousness but once was used to clear Vietnam’s thick jungle and kill crops.
For years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has blocked these veterans from benefits that could help improve their lives. But a federal court ruling last month siding with the veterans should change things.
We urge the VA, which is reviewing the court decision and will determine an appropriate response, to do right by these aging veterans. But if it doesn’t, there are enough U.S. House members and Senators who are eager for a legislative fix. Congress was on the verge of making it happen last year. The chairmen of both the House and Senate veterans committees have said they plan to deal with the topic quickly this year. U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz should get on board. A spokeswoman for Cornyn told the Editorial Board he first wants to see the results of the VA study comparing the health and well-being of Vietnam veterans to similarly aged U.S. residents who never served in the military.
Unlike their fellow veterans who served inland during the war, these so-called blue water Navy veterans served in the harbors or offshore providing naval gun fire support from smaller ships and air cover from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, according to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association.
They can receive medical care for their medical problems though the VA. To receive disability benefits, however, they must prove their medical problems — many of which could also be associated with aging — are linked to exposure to Agent Orange while on duty. Blue water navy veterans have fought the VA over denials of their claims for years.
As reported by the San Antonio Express-News’ Bill Lambrecht, the Agent Orange Act of 1991 directed the VA to award benefits to Vietnam-era veterans including those from the Navy, who had begun suffering from cancers, cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, or any of the 14 ailments likely to be related to exposure to the carcinogenic weedkiller.
In 2002, the VA excluded veterans who served offshore. As reported, the agency required veterans to show proof of boots on the ground or operating along an inland waterway. But veterans have argued toxins were sucked into ships serving just offshore and then distilled for drinking.
Cost clearly has been a factor: The VA last year opposed passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act which would have restored disability benefits and health care to up to 70,000 blue water Navy. They could potentially have received as much as $2,000 per month, tax free, according to reports. The VA estimated the cost at nearly $7 billion over the first 10 years. The VA also said it needs evidence of Agent Orange exposure for offshore vessels because most of the blue water Navy veterans’ ailments presumed to be caused
The bill passed the House unanimously after the VA committee negotiated with a major veterans’ organization to pay for it by raising user fees on VA-guaranteed home loans. The VA said the plan was unfair to the entire veteran population. The legislation became stalled in the Senate.
Last month, however, blue water Navy veterans won a major victory when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a decade-old ruling by the court backing up the VA, saying Congress never intended to exclude service members in the territorial seas around Vietnam when it awarded presumptive benefits for certain illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure. “… by using the formal term ‘Republic of Vietnam,’ Congress unambiguously referred, consistent with uniform international law, to both its landmass and its 12-nautical-mile territorial sea,” the ruling states.
Texas, home to 1.5 million veterans, should be cheering this ruling. More than one-third served during the Vietnam War era. Many of us know the challenges veterans face after returning home from a foreign war. Blue water Navy Vietnam veterans, like their counterparts who served inland, put themselves in harm’s way at the request of the U.S. government. It is only right that the government restore the benefits they need.