WASHINGTON–Navy veterans who served aboard ships in the harbors of Vietnam more than 40 years ago should not be arbitrarily excluded from Agent Orange claims, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims ruled Thursday in a significant step forward for these servicemen.
Former Navy seaman Robert Gray has been denied multiple disability claims by the Department of Veterans Affairs based on the fact that he was aboard a ship – not on land – during the Vietnam War, when the herbicide Agent Orange was liberally sprayed by American forces to remove foliage and eliminate enemy cover. The chemical was later found to cause a myriad of health problems for service members who were exposed, but the Federal Government has denied disability claims to U.S. Navy sailors under the argument that the seamen were offshore and were not directly exposed.
Legislation dubbed ‘Blue Water Benefits” bills are pending in Congress again, giving recognition to Navy personnel’s exposure to Agent Orange through ships’ water systems. Runoff containing the herbicide flowed into Da Nang Harbor and other offshore waterways, infiltrating water systems on Naval vessels.
Military Veterans Advocacy (MVA), a veterans’ rights organization based in Louisiana, has long sought recognition for these conditions and filed an amicus brief in this case.
“This is an important step forward in restoring the benefits to those veterans who served offshore,” said retired Navy Commander John B. Wells, executive director of MVA. “When the VA stripped benefits from 174,000 Navy veterans, they left these veterans without healthcare and their families destitute. The VA now has a chance to restore the presumption of exposure to veterans that served aboard ships anchored in Da Nang and other harbors of Vietnam.”
Wells, a Navy veteran and an attorney focusing on military and veterans issues in his private practice, traveled to Washington only two weeks ago to speak with congressional leaders about this issue.
“Da Nang Harbor is surrounded on three sides by land,” Wells said. “The airfield housing the planes that sprayed Agent Orange was a short distance away. Canals and ditches provided drainage from the airfield into the rivers and the harbor. Additionally, offsetting winds blew the chemical over the harbor. Studies from the Australian government, confirmed by the United States’ Institute of Medicine, found that the shipboard distillation system would enrich the dioxin as part of the distillation process. Once this system became contaminated, it contaminated the potable water system with an enriched dioxin.”
Although the legal system may not yet be finished with the case, as the Department of Veterans Affairs could further appeal the matter and Congress has not yet acted on Blue Water legislation, the ruling today is a significant step forward, Wells said.
“The VA has been under well-deserved scrutiny from Congress,” said Wells. “They now have a chance to do the right thing. I call on Secretary Robert MacDonald to do so.”