“When there is a deadlock, my personal belief is that the tie should be broken in favor of the brave men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us.” Former Veterans Administration Secretary Dr. David Shulkin
In 1991, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act. The act presumed certain diseases were tied to Agent Orange exposure during a veteran’s military service, and would make them eligible for VA benefits.
In the 27 years since the law was enacted, the list of diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange has grown and includes various cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, peripheral neuropathy, and heart disease among others.
The VA website states the following: “For the purposes of VA compensation benefits, veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 are presumed to have been exposed to herbicides, as specified in the Agent Orange Act of 1991. These veterans do not need to show that they were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides in order to get disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure.”
To get these benefits, though, veterans “must have actually set foot on Vietnamese soil or served on a craft in its rivers (also known as ‘brown water’ Navy),” the Congressional Research Service wrote. Those who instead spent time on deep-water Navy ships (called “Blue Water Navy” veterans) do not qualify unless they can show that they spent time on Vietnam land or rivers, the report said.
HR 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2018, a bill whose original sponsor is Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, would restore benefits to nearly 90,000 veterans of the Navy who served off the coast of Vietnam during the war and were subject to the same exposure to Agent Orange as their dry land and Brown Water Navy comrades.
These benefits, arbitrarily rescinded in 2002, included medical and disability treatment and compensation. Valadao’s bill, HR 299 passed in the House 382 – 0 and was sent on to the Senate where it was also expected to pass without opposition.
Now, an openly hostile Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, has urged senators to reject legislation that would make health care and disability compensation available to approximately 90,000 “Blue Water” Navy veterans – those sailors aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships who contend they were exposed to Agent Orange through the ships’ water systems. The dioxin-laden herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and heart disease, as well as other conditions.
Wilkie, who came from the Pentagon where he was deputy secretary for personnel and readiness, has staked his tent in the far territory, beyond reason and in opposition to objective facts.
These are our neighbors, friends, co-workers, and fellow retirees who face the daily challenge of fighting illnesses directly associated with their military service, nearly 50 years after that honorable service ended.
And the VA, at its highest administrative level, refuses to extend the hand pledged on the bronze plaque next to the front door at 801 Vermont St. in Washington, the Department of Veterans Affairs: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
Is it any wonder less than half of 1 percent of our 330 million fellow Americans choose to join the military, when confronted with the knowledge that previous generations in their families have been refused treatment and compensation for health issues directly related to their service?
Many of our Blue Water Navy veterans will not survive Wilkie’s tenure in office. It is unconscionable that an individual who has expressed open hostility to veterans was even nominated, much less confirmed as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans might expect better from an administration that claims to support our men and women who have served, but as we’ve seen with much out of this administration, it is so much smoke being blown up our skirts.
Jim Doyle of Fresno is a Vietnam Veteran and veterans advocate.