WASHINGTON, DC – At a hearing before the Veterans’ Affairs Committee yesterday, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) pressed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie to provide automatic benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans who were exposed to toxic Agent Orange chemicals during the Vietnam War. Yesterday’s hearing follows a meeting in Brown’s office, where he raised the issue last week.
Brown has signed onto legislation that would correct the unequal treatment of Blue Water Navy Veterans. But the VA could make this change administratively without Congress having to pass a law, and Brown is asking Wilke to use his authority to make that change.
Brown’s office has held 10 roundtables with veterans across Ohio in the past few months. And Ohio veterans have raised the issue time and time again.
“All Vietnam veterans exposed to toxic Agent Orange chemicals should have equal access to the care and benefits they earned,” said Brown. “The Department of Veterans Affairs needs to act immediately to right this wrong and make sure all veterans are treated equally whether they served on land or sea.”
A Blue Water Navy veteran is a veteran who served in a ship off the coast of Vietnam.
Agent Orange is a toxic herbicide that was widely used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange is now widely recognized as causing cancer and other illnesses. The full list of illnesses the VA recognizes as being caused by Agent Orange can be found on the VA website HERE.
Currently, Vietnam veterans who served on land or in inland waterways automatically qualify for healthcare coverage and certain disability benefits if they’ve been diagnosed with a health condition on the list above. However, Blue Water Navy veterans don’t automatically qualify, even if they had been diagnosed with the very same illnesses as fellow veterans who served on land.
As a result, Blue Water Navy veterans are forced to meet a higher burden of proof and must navigate additional bureaucracy to get the benefits they’ve earned.
This wasn’t always the case. Before 1997, the VA treated Blue Water Navy Veterans the same as fellow veterans who served on land. However, in 1997, the VA changed its policy.
In recent years, the VA has argued against changing the policy, saying there is no science to support granting Blue Water Navy the same presumption of service connection status as those who served on land, or inland waterways. However, the Royal Australian Navy commissioned a study which illustrated the water distillation process used on ships to process potable water increased the concentration of Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD a contaminant in Agent Orange. Which means that if there was Agent Orange in the water that Navy ships used to make potable water Navy veterans would have used that water for food, bathing, and drinking. Unfortunately, VA has not accepted the science behind this study, even though the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has said, “the presumption of exposure of military personnel serving on those vessels [which traveled near land and some distance from the river deltas] is not unreasonable.”
Brown has long fought to secure benefits for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals. During Wilkie’s confirmation hearing, Brown secured a commitment from then-nominee Wilkie to work with his office regarding Agent Orange presumptive conditions, Blue Water Navy veterans’ eligibility for benefits, and establishing a process to diagnose constrictive bronchiolitis, a condition cause by burn pit exposure at VA.