During the past year, most Americans have become aware of the
multitude of problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs: the
excessive backlog in processing medical claims, the unsatisfactory
amount of time it takes for veterans to get appointments, the falsified
accounting of wait times by VA hospital officials, and the procurement
irregularities associated with the billions of dollars in annual
What has not been reported by the media, and what is also not being
addressed by the VA today is the injustice to thousands of Vietnam
veterans who have died or are dying from cancers and other diseases
caused by their exposure to lethal defoliants while serving on U.S. Navy
As a point of reference, the U.S. military sprayed over 20 million
gallons of toxic herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971.
The goal was to defoliate the jungle to deprive the enemy of food
supplies and enemy sanctuaries.
The most common of these herbicides was known as Agent Orange - one
of the most deadly cancer-causing dioxins ever synthesized by man.
Agent Orange found its way into streams, rivers, harbors, bays and
the South China Sea where it was ingested by U.S. Navy ships. Warships
would suck up this contamination during the shipboard water-purification
process conducted while operating just offshore - as it would be
ingested by our aircraft carriers operating farther out at sea.
Wind-blown Agent Orange contamination also entered the ventilation
systems on our ships - just as wind-blown radioactive particles from the
damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor covered the USS Ronald Reagan Battle
Group operating 60 miles off the coast of Japan following the earthquake
and tsunami in 2011.
Due to the high number of veterans who contracted Agent
Orange-related diseases, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991
which declared any veteran who served on active duty in the Vietnam
theater from 1962 to 1975, and who has a disease attributed to Agent
Orange, would be presumed eligible for service-connected medical
treatment and disability benefits.
From the passage of this law in 1991 until 2002, the VA assumed
presumption of exposure for all afflicted veterans holding a Vietnam
Service Medal, and appropriately granted service-connected treatment and
appropriate disability benefits.
However in 2002, without medical or scientific basis to do so, the VA
changed the criteria for presumption of exposure from afflicted
personnel holding a Vietnam Service Medal to only those veterans who
served ashore with "boots on the ground" or who served in the "brown
water Navy" (on patrol boats or smaller ships operating on inland
This arbitrary decision rescinded the statutory presumption of
exposure to those blue water Navy sailors and Marines who served at sea
and in the rivers, harbors and bays of Vietnam.
The VA's unilateral decision to support only those who served ashore
or in the brown water Navy clearly ignores the intent of Congress, and
appears to be funding related.
Numerous scientific studies conducted by the Centers for Disease
Control, the Institute of Medicine and the Australian VA proved that
sailors at sea were also exposed to these dioxins.
Of note is that the Australian VA presumes exposure to afflicted
veterans who served both ashore and afloat and provides medical
treatment and disability benefits to them.
As a result of the U.S. VA's decision to rescind those benefits, blue
water Navy vets continue to suffer and die from the debilitating
effects of Agent Orange, and their families continue to suffer
overwhelming financial difficulty.
The House and Senate have bills pending before them to re-establish
the intent specified in the Agent Orange Act of 1991; however VA
Secretary Robert McDonald can right this injustice immediately with the
stroke of his pen.
It is time that we reverse this unfair decision that affects our
remaining blue water Navy Vietnam veterans suffering from Agent
Orange-related diseases. They and their families deserve nothing less.
Ed Straw is a retired vice admiral and former president of global operations at Estee Lauder. He lives in New York.