Navy veterans fight for return of Agent Orange-exposure benefits

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 18, 2014 

Nearly half of the surviving 100,000 members of the United States Navy and fleet marine services who fought in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 could be experiencing wartime injuries from the long term effects of dioxin exposure.

On Aug. 2, 2013, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association and Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc. jointly filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against Eric K. Shinseki in his capacity as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. This lawsuit demands immediate restoration of presumption of Agent Orange exposure. The law would constitute implementation of HR 543 pending before the 113th Congress.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2013, HR 543, was introduced to the House hloor by Rep.Chris Gibson, D.-N.Y. This legislation will return the presumption of exposure to herbicide to Navy and Marine veterans who served in the offshore water of Vietnam.

These conditions include, but are not limited to, many forms of cancer, ischemic heart disease, Parkinson's disease and diabetes II.

Approximately 21 million gallons of the dioxin herbicide was sprayed on Vietnam. It entered the food chain and water systems. Dairy products produced in Vietnam serviced the offshore carriers. The distillation process of the carriers amplified the toxin the crews drank and showered in.

Over time crew members have reported Agent Orange barrels being carried aboard. There are reports of spillage and clean up. Records for the evidence of these occurances are not available.

My husband recalls black barrels, about two-gallon size, stored on board. Instructions were to stay away from the barrels. Recently, I discovered it was common for the dioxin to be transported this way. Agent Orange is a mixture of two formulas transported separately and mixed at one location. In transporting the formula separately, I believe, the Navy was not required to tag the barrels as Agent Orange, indicated by an orange tag or stripe.

About twelve years ago the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs altered its internal policy and began denying benefits to the Blue Water Vietnam Veterans that had been receiving benefits for the presumed conditions. These service personnel are being denied all service-connected health care from Veterans Affairs hospitals and disability compensation for the presumed conditions.

It can take 30 years for conditions to develop after exposure, for my husband we began seeing the effects within 15 years of his service, subtle but progressive.

The Institute of Medicine released its fourth report Dec. 3, 2013 referring to its previous reports, reminding the Department of Veterans Affairs that there is "plausible routes for exposure of Blue Water Navy personnel." It said:

The individuals who served off the shores of Vietnam should not be exempted from receipt of Veterans Affairs benefits of Agent Orange-related disabilities as there is no medical or scientific evidence to deny those veterans the benefits that other service members from the Vietnam War receive on a regular basis;

There were several viable pathways for exposure of the crews on the ships of the Seventh Fleet who served offshore Vietnam;

There is no evidence that Agent Orange/dioxin did not poison the veterans in questions and there is overwhelming evidence indicating high probability that it did;

No single group of veterans that served anywhere in southeast Asia should be removed from the benefits for presumptive exposure to the deadly herbicides used in the broader geographical area thought out the Vietnam War.

Some crew logs have been purged. It is up to the veteran to provide evidence and contact possible witnesses. To attain available ship logs is costly both financially and in time to get them. For many their hands are tied. Their service medals are not enough to prove they served. Their health-related conditions are not enough evidence.

Recently I presented a resolution to the Bellingham City Council urging the Congress of the United States to restore the presumption of a service connection for agent orange exposure to those who served in the waters and airspace of the combat zone. This resolution, if adopted, would give stronger support to HR 543. Please let your council member know you would like them to support this resolution.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laine Wheatley and her husband Aaron of Bellingham belong to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran's Association. For more information on the topic, go online to bluewaternavy.org.

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