The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
BYLINE: William Cole
The Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to review the cases of 16,830 "brown water" Navy and other Vietnam-era veterans whose disability claims related to the herbicide Agent Orange were denied, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka's office said.
Akaka, D-Hawaii, said the VA denied claims without properly determining whether veterans served in Vietnam's inland waterways, referred to as "brown water," or in other locations where they may have been exposed to Agent Orange.
Akaka, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, urged the VA to reconsider cases in which claims by Vietnam veterans potentially exposed to Agent Orange were denied without obtaining relevant military records.
Akaka sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on March 30 saying Veterans' Affairs Committee staff visited VA offices, reviewed 80 randomly selected claims "and found some alarming trends in adjudication."
Most of the files reviewed did not include evidence such as deck logs, a captain's history or other documents that would make it possible to determine whether the veteran served exclusively offshore, where exposure to Agent Orange was unlikely, or served on inland waterways and could have been exposed, the letter said.
Shinseki wrote back on Sept. 17 saying he agreed that a review of all 16,830 affected cases was warranted "and will be conducted to identify and correct any case that was improperly denied."
"I commend VA for responding to data showing that many Navy vessels thought to have stayed at sea actually traveled into the inland waters of Vietnam," Akaka said. "As a result, veterans who served on these vessels are eligible for the same benefits as Vietnam veterans who served on land."
From 1961 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange -- which contains highly poisonous dioxin -- and other herbicides to remove leaves from trees that provided cover for enemy forces, the VA said.
The VA said it has recognized certain cancers and other diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, and that veterans, their children and survivors may be eligible for compensation.
Claims had been placed on hold by the VA while litigation was pending concerning veterans who served on "blue water" ships away from shore and their exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides. Those claims were subsequently denied.
Many of those veterans actually served in inland waters, and should have received the same presumption of exposure as veterans who had "boots on the ground," Akaka's office said.
With the review, the claims of some veterans previously considered "blue water" veterans will be re-evaluated for evidence of "brown water" service, or evidence of service in other locations where the VA acknowledges that herbicides may have been used, such as the perimeter of Air Force bases in Thailand, Akaka's office said.
The committee website -- http://veterans.senate.gov -- provides a list of vessels the VA has acknowledged traveled in inland waters, as well as evidence about other ships.