U.S. CONGRESS — U.S. Senators Steve Daines (R-MT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representatives Chris Gibson (R-NY) and David Valadao (R-CA) today are urging the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to clarify their misguided decision against providing “Blue Water” Navy veterans with the disability and health care benefits that they deserve for diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure.
In a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald and Deputy Secretary Gibson, the members request the VA to clarify how they came to their conclusion ruling against providing care to “Blue Water” Navy veterans. On February 5, Daines and Gillibrand received a letter from VA Secretary Bob McDonald refusing to reverse the VA rule without an explanation.
“We are greatly concerned that these Veterans have long been overlooked since the 2002 regulatory change, which excluded them from presumptive coverage for illnesses connected to Agent Orange exposure,” the members wrote. “Unfortunately, in our view the VA did not comply with the intent of this court ruling and ‘doubled down’ on their regulations excluding thousands of Navy sailors and Marines from coverage.”
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam to remove jungle foliage. This toxic chemical had devastating effects for millions serving in Vietnam. In 1991, Congress passed a law requiring the VA to provide presumptive coverage to Vietnam veterans with illnesses that the Institute of Medicine has directly linked to Agent Orange exposure. However, in 2002 the VA determined that it would only cover Veterans who could prove that they had orders for “boots on the ground” during the Vietnam War. This exclusion affects thousands of sailors who may have still received significant Agent Orange exposure from receiving VA benefits.
Read the full text of the letter below or download it here:
Dear Secretary McDonald and Deputy Secretary Gibson,
We write to you regarding an issue of pressing interest to us and our constituents: the exposure to Agent Orange of “Blue Water Navy” Vietnam Veterans who served in the bays, harbors, and territorial seas off of Southern Vietnam during the Vietnam War. We are greatly concerned that these Veterans have long been overlooked since the 2002 regulatory change, which excluded them from presumptive coverage for illnesses connected to Agent Orange exposure.
This 2002 decision swung the pendulum too far, excluding tens of thousands of Veterans who were exposed while serving offshore through direct exposure and through their ships’ distillation processes. With significant medical and other research data, including evidence compiled by the Australians that has led to Australia’s recognition of Agent Orange exposure for these Veterans, over three quarters of the United States Congress (341 total Members of Congress, including 303 Representatives and 38 Senators) support H.R. 969 and S. 681, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act to correctly extend presumptive coverage for Agent Orange exposure to those who served in the Territorial Seas and bays and harbors of South Vietnam.
Furthermore, we also recognize that, pursuant to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims decision in Gray v. McDonald, the VA was required to redefine “inland waterways.” Unfortunately, in our view the VA did not comply with the intent of this court ruling and “doubled down” on their regulations excluding thousands of Navy sailors and Marines from coverage.
Given the above, we respectfully request a written response detailing how VA came to this conclusion. Specifically, we are:
- Seeking clarity on whether the VA consulted with outside experts and other stakeholders, including the Australian government, when making the 2002 decision and the recent February 2016 regulatory changes pursuant to the Gray decision;
- Seeking an explanation for why those who served within Nha Trang Harbor, specifically, were not included for presumptive coverage despite proof that Agent Orange dioxin was found in the bottom sediment 20 years after the war.
In conclusion, we thank you for your service to our nation’s Veterans and hope that you will work with us and over three quarters of the United States Congress to once again appropriately recognize the service of thousands of Vietnam Veterans and their exposure to the horrific health challenges experienced due to exposure to Agent Orange.