Since the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of our Vietnam Veterans have been receiving disability pensions from the Department of Veterans Affairs [DVA] for exposure to Agent Orange [and other defoliants]. Until 2002, this included those Navy Veterans who gave "service in offshore waters", as the legislation puts it. This class of Veterans is referred to as "Blue Water" sailors.
However, in 2002, the DVA changed its policy and began denying "presumptive eligibility" to Naval Veterans who only served offshore, and did not set foot on land, or travel up rivers and estuaries. Those who had been receiving Agent Orange benefits had those benefits stopped and were told to repay everything they had received!
There are tens of thousands of Blue Water Sailors who have been denied help for the cancers and diabetes and other diseases presumed to have been caused by Agent Orange. They are dying by the dozens every day. [A veteran's claim for benefits dies with the veteran.]
At the heart of the matter is the DVA's insistence that there was no exposure at sea, no matter how close to the coast a ship got. Naval vessels, such as the Destroyers and Cruisers on the “gun line”, got as close as a quarter mile from the beach on gunfire support missions where our naval guns would support Army, ARVN, and Marine operations inland within ten to fifteen miles of the coast. Other ships and small boats would patrol on Operation Market Time, stopping and searching small Vietnamese boats in a campaign of interdiction of supplies for the Viet Cong guerrillas. During that time, such craft were exposed to spray from nearby aircraft and helicopters that would drift in clouds on prevailing westerly winds out over the sea. From time to time, the spraying aircraft would circle out over the water with its sprayers going, and a ship would be doused with the dioxins if it was unfortunate enough to be under the flight path. It happened.
But even more horrifying was the result of a study done by our Australian Navy friends, who were right there with our own Blue Water Sailors. Suspicious at being told not to make fresh water from sea water through the ships' evaporator system [desalinization], the Australians guessed it had to do with Agent Orange. So they set about conducting a test where they ran sea water, with simulated Agent Orange contaminated runoff in it, through a ship's evaporators. What they discovered was that the evaporation process would not remove the contaminant, but instead, enhanced it by concentrating it. The Aussies just began paying their Blue Water sailors benefits for exposure to Agent Orange.
So, they bathed in it, drank it in their coffee, cooked with it, and even drank it almost straight right from the water fountains on board ship.
Ergo the DVA's policy excluding Blue Water sailors is incorrect, in fact, as well as in its ignorance of the original enabling legislation’s language. But they will not back down. Last summer, a claim appeal by a former Navy Commander reached the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims [CAVC]. In Haas v. Nicholson, Commander Haas claimed that his ammunition ship was directly sprayed while close in shore supplying small vessels with ammunition. The Court agreed with Haas, and ruled in his favor, declaring the DVA's 2002 policy improper, and reinstating benefits to Blue Water Veterans. That meant thousands of claims that were on the way to denial were suddenly given new life and hope. By December, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson had issued a memo ordering all Haas-related cases stopped, and held in abeyance while he appealed the case. While the CAVC told the Secretary he could not make law and to continue processing the claims in a January ruling [mandamus -- Ribaudo v. Nicholson], the Secretary was finally granted a stay during appeal. The case is now at the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit [docket number 2007-7037]. Briefs are still being filed.
Meanwhile, good men are dying. Men who proudly and faithfully served their country in time of war, often in combat, and who were exposed to the defoliants used in Vietnam, are dying. The surviving Veterans, and their families, and the widows and families of these Veterans already dead are denied the basic services and financial aid accorded to other combat Veterans disabled during their service. Tens of thousands of them are already dead of any of a variety of cancers, complications from Diabetes Mellitus [Type II], and other diseases such as peripheral neuropathy, porphyria, and non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Tens of thousands more are suffering from the lung or liver cancer, skin cancers, and other diseases associated with exposure to dioxins.
There is the story: Secretary Nicholson's craven indifference to the suffering of those he is sworn to protect is forcing men to die without coverage, without providing for their families, and in many cases, unable to afford a funeral. Those still alive sit disabled, wondering if their wives will be able to keep their home after they die. Many of them cannot afford all the medications or treatments that inclusion would provide. And so they try to die with dignity, try to die without bitterness at a government agency that exists, as President Lincoln put it, "...to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan...", but does not do so.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has become a deadlier and more difficult adversary to the American Veteran than any they have ever faced on a battlefield.
The Blue Water Navy Veterans need to get public pressure applied to Secretary Nicholson to do the right thing, and drop the appeal. In the end, they believe in the Haas decision, and that it will be upheld no matter how high in the court system it goes. Haas brought the DVA back into line with the original language of the enabling legislation. But by delaying, Nicholson is letting men die without the benefits, and in some cases, letting them die premature deaths that could be avoided if they could afford medical coverage and prescription coverage, and attendant care as well. Remember, a man's claim dies with him. Nicholson is counting on this to keep occurring at an increasing frequency as long as possible in order to save money.
Should you wish to do some checking to get this whole story, there is an excellent website called "Blue Water Navy" at: http://www.bluewaternavy.org/. You can find all the documentation you could need to understand the situation. That site has pretty much all the links on it to court decisions, scientific studies and even a report commissioned by the DVA and written by none other than Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, that the DVA suppressed for over a decade, and now chooses to ignore. Its evidence is strong and scientific, and is damning to the DVA.
Not only does the public need to know about this, but so does Congress.
To the DVA, this fight is about money, and nothing else. To the Blue Water Veterans, it is not only about survival for themselves, and their families, it is also about their legacy as forgotten warriors in a war no one can forget.