A deadly dichotomy exists for American veterans.
On Friday, our nation will honor them as heroes with speeches and parades, with rightful respect and recognition.
Yet these words, these sentiments, won’t translate into action the other 364 days of the year, especially on Capitol Hill, for roughly 90,000 sailors who served on the open waters of the Navy during the Vietnam War.
Since 2002, the government has excluded these “Blue Water Navy” vets from receiving disability benefits for their exposure to Agent Orange, a cancer-causing herbicide. While compensation through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had been extended to them through the Agent Orange Act of 1991, now those who develop illnesses tied to exposure rarely receive the service-related disability payments, unless they can prove shore leave or have a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“If we’re sick, and we have the exact same diseases that are on the Agent Orange list, what else could have caused it?” asked John Rossie, Executive Director of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association. “And that’s a question they can’t and won’t answer.”
Used to clear the jungles of Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, Agent Orange contained cancer-causing dioxins. Exposure to the defoliant has been associated with numerous disorders and cancers, including certain types of leukemia and heart disease, as well as neurological and respiratory illnesses. Studies have shown that even contact with trace amounts can have effects that show up decades later.
Soldiers and sailors who had “boots on the ground” continue to receive the service-related disability benefits due to an accepted tenet, “presumption of exposure.” So do those who sailed select inland waterways, sailors who were part of what is called the Brown Water Navy. But those who sailed on open waters, the Blue Water Navy, are not covered.