WASHINGTON - Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand will use a Veteran's Affairs
Committee hearing Wednesday to push a bill to extend Veterans Affairs
Department benefits to "blue water" Vietnam-era veterans exposed to
It's a bid to right what many of those Navy veterans see as their
unfair exclusion from a 1991 law that requires the VA to provide
presumptive disability coverage to Vietnam veterans potentially exposed
to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide the U.S. used to remove jungle
foliage if they develop health conditions tied to the chemical.
Though some of the Navy vets faced exposure, they cannot receive the
benefits unless they set foot on the ground in Vietnam or can show "on
factual basis" that they were exposed.
That leaves tens of thousands of veterans like Bobby Condon uncovered.
Condon, 68, who grew up in Flatbush, enlisted in the Navy at just 17,
serving from 1965 to 1968. He was nicknamed "Brooklyn" by fellow
Condon, who had previously overcome throat cancer, was diagnosed in
2008 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, an incurable form of cancer
linked to Agent Orange.
He believes he was exposed to Agent Orange while working on planes that
had flown threw areas where the chemical was dropped while he worked on
the flight deck of the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier.
"You're telling me that this plane is flying through this stuff, we're
changing the planes, we're pushing them around, then we're going down
and getting a hamburger, and we're not exposed?" he said.
He noted that he used to bite his nails.
Condon says he has a "50-50 chance of dying" from the condition, but can't get coverage from the VA.
"They're just trying to wear me out," he said. "They won't wear me out."
Gillibrand's bill, cosponsored by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), would
allow veterans who served up to approximately 12 miles offshore to get
VA health and disability benefits for illnesses that are tied to Agent
The junior New York senator has pushed the measure since 2009, but
failed to win Senate passage amid concerns about the cost the coverage
would impose on the VA.
Condon said he will watch what senators do with the bill, which is set to receive a committee vote in coming weeks.
"These guys are sitting in their plush chairs," he said. "They are either gonna vote no or yes on this."