U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand released the following statement for this morning's Veterans Affairs' Committee hearing on the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2009. Click here for more information on Senator Gillibrand's legislation.
"Mr. Chairman, Thank you for holding this hearing today on the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2009, legislation that I have introduced to ensure benefits for hundreds of thousands of Navy veterans who are afflicted with devastating health effects due to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Since 2002, they have been shut out of VA care for Agent Orange related illness and this legislation corrects that injustice.
"We know that during the Vietnam War, the United States Military sprayed more than twenty million gallons Agent Orange, an herbicide used to remove foliage that was providing cover for many enemy fighters in Vietnam. We also know that this toxic chemical has had an often tragic effect on many of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who served in Vietnam. They have been subjected to increased rates of cancer and other diseases and a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in Vietnam veterans is fifty-percent higher than the general population.
"There is a large body of science that supports the claim that sailors who were serving in the waters around Vietnam were exposed to levels of Agent Orange. However, since 2002 the VA has enforced an exclusive policy that bars individuals who cannot provide orders requiring "boots on the ground" in Vietnam from receiving coverage for Agent Orange. This policy fails to take into account the amounts of Agent Orange contamination that existed in waterways in and around Vietnam, as well as Agent Orange carried by drifting winds over ships in the vicinity of where it was being sprayed. In 2005 article in the Journal of Law and Policy, Dr. Mark Brown, the Director of the Environmental Agents Service for the VA, wrote that there is no scientific basis for excluding individual who served in close proximity to mainland Vietnam.
"It is clear that Agent Orange exposure did not stop at the water's edge, and the current VA policy regarding Navy veterans is wrong. To highlight how absurd the "boots on the ground' rule is, even personnel who were stationed on Johnston Island and handled Agent Orange where it was stored and incinerated do not have the same access to benefits as those who served in-country.
"This legislation honors the sacrifice of all Vietnam veterans, regardless of whether they served on land or at sea, by expanding presumptive Agent Orange benefit coverage. This bill will clarify the law and restore the intent of Congress to provide benefits to veterans who served, among other places, on Johnston Island, waterways, ports, harbors, waters offshore, and airspaces above Vietnam, Navy veterans who were onboard ships or aircraft and who spent time on the ground transporting barrels of Agent Orange, and those who served on ships close to shore who were inadvertently sprayed by drifting winds that carried Agent Orange.
"We owe it to our Vietnam veterans to pass this legislation. This legislation is supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of American, and other organizations that join in our shared commitment to ensuring that our nation's veterans are not denied the benefits that they have earned in the line of duty.
"Mr. Chairman, our veterans who have already sacrificed so much cannot wait any longer, nor do they deserve to wait. Each day that we delay passage of this bill, Vietnam veterans continue to become ill and die before they are able to receive benefits. Because of the urgency of this issue, I request that your committee mark-up this legislation and expeditiously report it favorably to the floor for consideration by the full Senate."