Speaking forcefully, Senator John McCain referred to his brothers in arms, saying "Those who so nobly served our country and their families have been patient long enough. This should not be a political debate. They deserve answers. They deserve action." Hoping to quell any division of Congress on this issue, McCain went on to say, "I believe this is a fair and equitable approach to deal with the controversy that surrounds Agent Orange. For too long, much too long, the Government's response to Agent Orange has been based on opinion, perhaps even politics, but certainly not on facts... Our Vietnam veterans served our Nation with dignity and honor..... In spite of the risks, they answered our country's call to fight. It is time we settle the controversy over Agent Orange once and for all."
Representative Pelosi, wanting to put all this behind and move forward, said "Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange have been forced to cope with both life-threatening illness and the belief that they had served a government which had not fulfilled its obligation...These veterans demand and deserve the support of Congress.... I urge my colleagues to honor the Nation's commitment to all of its veterans and support this important legislation."
John Kerry, himself a Vietnam Navy veteran, stated, "No other issue...elicited as much emotional concern and continued consternation as the contradictions that have been evident between the promises that the Government has made and does make with respect to veterans, and the contradictions in the studies, the willingness of Government to try to sort them out." Wisely, he warned: "...this does need to be codified. It is appropriate we pass this into law. Just as a regulation is issued on one day, it could be withdrawn on another."
Senator Burton summed the problem up succinctly. "The debate on whether compensation should be provided for illness related to the exposure to Agent Orange has gone on far too long. It's time to settle the issue, so we can move on to other serious problems."
This atmosphere of finally settling the issues of Agent Orange compensation seemed almost contagious as both Representatives and Senators rallied their support for this important Bill. Their statements were unforgettable; the depths of their feelings about this were ingrained deep within their souls; their swelling with pride to stand up for veterans was heartwarming. This outpouring of support for the American veteran happened in late January, 1991. It's almost as if it could have been said last week.
Now they are being asked to once again come to the aid of veterans fighting the ravages of Agent Orange, and essentially re-affirm the original intent and language they already voted on. These legislators have already supported the Agent Orange Act of 1991 and are some of the original signers. We're now asking them to once again include all affected veterans suffering from dioxin poisoning, including, as they did originally, those veterans with service offshore Vietnam, and now adding a few others in combat and support roles in countries around Vietnam like Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
But they are nowhere to be found. How fleeting these reckless moments of patriotism can be. How hollow the toll of the Liberty bell that sometimes rings out.
Of the Original Signers of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, with all their fancy and glorious talk of supporting veterans and honoring this Nation's commitment to take care of our wounded soldiers, at least 13 of them have yet to step forward as a co-signer. They, not their staff, don't return emails, phone calls or faxes. It really makes one wonder about the sincerity of promised support and past actions. How can these patriotic American legislators, who we have kept employed these past 19 years, forget their commitments? How can these individuals even hint at supporting our current veterans when they are not willing to reaffirm what they waved their flag about 19 years ago? The list is a long one:
In 1991, the fervor backing legislation to end the damage that dioxin was doing to our Armed Forces demanded nothing short of a final, complete and equitable handling of all complaints. The focus was that all service personnel in the Southeast Asian Theater of War would be taken care of, in such a way that even allowed some possible abuse of the system in exchange for a higher certainty that all those who really needed help would receive it. So there was purpose in leaving the language just a little vague.
The Original Signers will certainly be welcomed when they once again step forward to co-sign H-2254 and S-1939. We haven't given up on them. We're just trying to understand the mysteries of politics. For instance, how does an apparently strong patriotic fervor continue to this day, but focused a little askew to put the veterans of the past into a blind spot? A veteran is a veteran.
And a solution is a solution. Reading those statements, there's nothing that would indicate they aren't addressing our current legislation. They indicated that a final solution was being put into place. But it didn't quite work out like that. And it didn't just suddenly happen. There were glaring signposts along the way. After setting that goal:
So, really, what's the point in doing something half-assed and then pretending it's no longer a problem. It sure wasn't framed that way 19 years ago. But I just heard a complaint: "How many times do you expect us to keep going back and addressing this issue?"
Well, I would have thought it would only need to be done once, and then watched to make sure the intended solution held watertight. But let's get real, shall we? If you let the agencies of the government subvert, or in some cases flagrantly disobey, the law, then you'll have to go back as many times as it takes to finally fix things up. It's an issue of quality, not quantity.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 was some of the most important veterans' legislation that came out of the last half of the Twentieth Century. But it had some fatal flaws and now it needs to be fixed. Now we've got the Agent Orange Equity Act to set things right again.
What can we do to get both H-2254 and S-1939 out of committee for a vote? Don't they deserve a fair hearing? Doesn't the number of co-sponsorship indicate what the general thought of the American people is about that subject? There's no reason to sit on them and every reason to pass them into law. There's no argument that will hold water that we can't afford it. These are the lives of veterans we're talking about. There's no argument that the VA can take responsibility for this without it being law, because, like Senator Kerry said, if we leave it as a VA promise, there's nothing that can be done when they change their minds about it. And the VA is notorious for doing just that.
My suggestion to the legislators? Get these two bills out of committee, pass them without a bunch of political posturing, and then get on to other important matters that need your attention. The American public has already weighed in through their contact with the Senators and Representatives that have been hired to relay the will and wants of the people. Use this as a test case: You've been voted into the positions you hold because we expect you to do as we wish. You've been doing an extremely poor job of that. Here's a great chance to show that you really mean what you say when you claim to support our troops as well as support your constituents. It's just a matter of doing the right thing.
John Paul Rossie, Executive Director
Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association