Congressmen Chris Gibson (R-NY), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Tim Walz (D-MN) and Denny Rehberg (R-MT) announced today the introduction of legislation that would extend coverage and associated benefits with "Agent Orange" exposure to an additional group of Vietnam Veterans. H.R. 3612, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2011, would allow blue water veterans who served up to 12 miles off-shore in Vietnam presumptive coverage for Agent Orange exposure. This would enable them to receive Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits if they suffer from any of the diseases the U.S. government has linked to Agent Orange. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
"Without question, we must do everything we can to ensure that our nation's veterans receive the benefits they earned serving our nation. This responsibility is even more profound when the illnesses from which they are suffering are linked directly to their service," said Congressman Gibson. "I have personally met with constituents who have had to fight with the VA to try and receive coverage for some truly debilitating conditions and diseases. I believe as a nation we can do better, and I am proud to join with my colleagues in the House and the Senator from New York in this effort.
"Our veterans, whether they served a week ago or half-a-century ago, deserve to know that we will make good on our promise to them by preserving fundamental benefits like healthcare," said Congressman Doggett. "This bipartisan effort to ensure that blue water Vietnam veterans are given all that they earned is a necessary step in ensuring that our obligation to our veterans does not end when they step off the battlefield."
"When our warriors return home, they should always be given the benefit of the doubt, and we have an obligation to ensure that they receive the care and benefits they earned. This legislation is our opportunity to right a wrong and will ensure we fulfill the moral responsibility we owe to the men and women who have served this country," said Congressman Walz.
"When these soldiers took their oaths of service, they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country in the defense of freedom," said Congressman Rehberg. "The very least we can do for them in appreciation for their service and sacrifice is to acknowledge their suffering so we can get them the medical treatment they need."
During the Vietnam War, more than 20 million gallons of the herbicide "Agent Orange" was sprayed to remove jungle foliage. A toxic chemical in the herbicide, dioxin, was been linked to devastating health effects, including non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, prostate and other cancers, Type II Diabetes, and Parkinson's disease. In 1991, legislation was enacted that empowered the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to declare certain illnesses "presumptive" to exposure to Agent Orange and enabled Vietnam veterans to receive disability compensation for these related conditions. However, in 2002, the VA limited the scope of the Act to only those veterans who could provide orders for "boots on the ground" in Vietnam. Boots on the ground encompassed infantry and the riverine navy. As a result, veterans who served in the waters off the coast of Vietnam, commonly called "blue water veterans," were forced to file individual claims with the VA to restore their benefits, which are then decided on a case-by-case basis. The VA has denied 32,880 such claims through 2009.
However, a May 2011 report issued by the Institute of Medicine concluded that plausible routes of exposure to Agent Orange exist for blue water veterans. Presumptive coverage lifts the burden from the individual veteran to prove direct exposure to Agent Orange - a nearly impossible task due to a lack of record keeping and the inability to know the precise location of dioxins in the air and groundwater runoff - and extends the same presumption that currently exists for veterans who served on land and inland waterways. It would also reduce backlogged VA claims by automatically covering claims for disability compensation from these veterans who are suffering from diseases that the U.S. government has linked to Agent Orange.
The legislation was referred to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.