The history of the Vietnam War is sordid to say the least. As it relates to veterans who served honorably and are fighting for disability benefits, it doesn’t have to be so convoluted, particularly when it comes to exposure to Agent Orange while in service. The issue of Agent Orange’s toxic effects on veterans who served in Vietnam has done a slow burn for decades. Its horrible impact on those exposed to it has become increasingly apparent, and with the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, it has caused greater awareness for presumption of service connection for those exposed to Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was a blend of herbicides used by the U.S. Military during the Vietnam Conflict to deny food to the enemy, to redirect enemy manpower to crop production, to weaken enemy strength, and to alleviate concealment to enemy forces. More than 19 million gallons of herbicide were sprayed to remove foliage and undergrowth. Defoliation of the area began in the mid-1960’s, and by the late 1960’s, most of the forests adjacent to the shipping routes were defoliated. The most common herbicide, of which Agent Orange was, was sprayed in all four military zones into which the United States divided South Vietnam, from I Corps lying south of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) to IV Corps in the Mekong Delta region. Although spraying occurred in most provinces of Vietnam, certain areas of the country were subject to more intensive spraying.
What is the Agent Orange Act of 1991? In 1991, Congress passed Public Law 102-4, which directed the Secretary of Veterans affairs to contract with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct an independent review of scientific information regarding the association, if any, between health outcomes and exposure to dioxin or other chemical compounds in the herbicides that were sprayed in Vietnam. According to that legislation, any “veteran who, during active military, naval, or air service, served in the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam era (January 9, 1962 – May 7, 1975, for compensation purposes) shall be presumed to have been exposed during such service to an herbicide agent.” As time has passed, the direct interpretation of this legislation, that a Vietnam veteran who contracts a disease that has been determined to be associated with herbicide exposure would be eligible for compensation benefits, has been subjected to a number of disputes.
One of those disputes has surrounded the eligibility of naval veterans from the Vietnam era. Resolution of this dispute by the VA has been that veterans who served on ships when they operated on Vietnam’s inland waterways (the Brown Water Navy) are considered eligible, but other era veterans (the Blue Water Navy) are eligible only if they can establish that they had “boots on the ground”, meaning ground troops who were on active service in the Vietnam conflict. Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans are those who served aboard deep-water U.S. Navy vessels, but did not dock or set foot on land in Vietnam. Conversely, Brown Water Navy Vietnam Veterans served on vessels that patrolled the inland shoals and waterways of the Republic of Vietnam.
With respect to Agent Orange, Brown Water Veterans who served in Vietnam and who have an illness which is presumed to be related to the herbicide don’t have to prove an association between their medical problems and their military service. There are 14 diseases that fall under this presumption:
- Al Amyloidosis
- Chronic B-cell Leukemias
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
- Hodgkin’s Disease
- Ischemic Heart Disease
- Multiple Myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Peripheral Neuropathy, Early-Onset
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
- Prostate Cancer
- Respiratory Cancers (includes lung cancer)
- Soft Tissue Sarcomas
Fortunately for many veterans, there is a new legislative push for the H.R.969 Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015. This bipartisan legislation will, if passed, ensure thousands of Blue Water Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange will be eligible to receive disability and health care benefits they have earned for diseases, such as those listed above, linked to Agent Orange Exposure. Thousands of these veterans are being denied benefits they need and deserve because of a technicality in the law, and it’s time the VA steps up and correct this erroneous oversight.