A key House of Representatives subcommittee will probe Wednesday whether thousands of Vietnam War sailors who say they were exposed to Agent Orange can qualify for federal benefits -- as the list of congressional supporters continues to grow significantly.
McClatchy detailed last month how veterans’ advocates have been frustrated for years in their bid for help. The Department of Veterans Affairs denies the benefits, saying there’s not enough evidence to prove widespread Agent Orange exposure for Navy veterans who served on large ships like aircraft carriers in the South China Sea.
The proposed legislation, which now is co-sponsored by 252 of the House’s 435 members, would grant disability-benefits coverage for potentially tens of thousands of sailors who have certain cancers and diseases associated with exposure to the chemical dioxin, a dangerous ingredient used in the Agent Orange herbicide during the Vietnam War.
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The bill, defeated in years past in Congress because of the estimated $1 billion cost over 10 years, is at a crucial political juncture, with a new president and VA secretary and President Donald Trump’s push to spend more federal money at the VA.
John Wells, an attorney and retired Navy commander who has been working on behalf of the affected sailors for nearly a decade, said he expects Wednesday’s congressional hearing may bring up questions of the cost and he will present some ideas to members of the subcommittee on how to pay for the benefits.
The money, he said, “has been the showstopper on this bill since the get-go.”
The hearing is scheduled for the House Veterans Affairs disability assistance subcommittee to review the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act as well as six other bills. No witness list has been released.
The blue water sailors bill has more sponsors than any of the other more than 1,200 bills waiting in committee in either chamber of Congress, according to data from the Library of Congress’ website tracking legislation.
From North Carolina, U.S. Reps. G.K. Butterfield and David Price – both Democrats who represent parts of the Triangle – are two of the latest House members to co-sponsor the disability benefits bill. Raleigh-area Congressman George Holding, a Republican, isn’t a co-sponsor but his office told McClatchy he’ll support the bill if it sees a floor vote.
Other N.C. co-sponsors are U.S. Reps. Richard Hudson, Walter Jones and David Rouzer, all Republicans, and Democrat Alma Adams.
“I think most people outside the (Department of Veterans Affairs) have accepted the scientific reality of the situation,” said Wells.
He and others say the Navy veterans – called “blue water” sailors because of the open seas where they served – were likely exposed to Agent Orange through their drinking water on board ships and via “spray drift” as planes blanketed the herbicide over Vietnam’s dense jungle and forest and winds carried the chemicals out to the ocean.
The disparity for Navy veterans exposed to the chemicals is an outrage, said Hudson, a congressman from Concord, North Carolina. He’s met with North Carolina veterans groups concerned about the issue.
252 Lawmakers co-sponsoring the bill by the end of March
In Jones’ office, staff members have opened congressional inquiries for veterans denied benefits. Jones said the sailors deserved compensation for their sacrifice and the VA should be awarding disability claims for blue water Navy veterans.
Some of the sailors say they loaded planes with Agent Orange, said Jason Lowry, staff military and veterans liaison, who has worked for Jones for 16 years. Lowry estimates 50 to 100 Vietnam veterans or their surviving family members have contacted Jones’ congressional office in recent years asking for help with blue water Agent Orange claims.
“They’re frustrated because they look around and they see other veterans getting this benefit,” Lowry said. “They certainly had exposure – it’s not even debatable. . . . At this point, it’s going to require a bill” from Congress.
Currently, the group of nearly 90,000 aging retired sailors – not all of whom have qualifying illnesses – aren’t considered eligible for “presumptive” Agent Orange benefits, meaning the federal government believes the chances of exposure at sea were low. These blue water sailors can receive free VA medical treatment and other service-related disability benefits but are denied Agent Orange exposure payments unless they can prove a direct link.
By contrast, other veterans who served as “boots on the ground” or flew planes carrying Agent Orange are automatically granted benefits if they develop a disease known to be linked to dioxin exposure.
Groups such as the American Legion have urged Congress to overrule the VA standard rejection of disability benefits claims from Navy personnel who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during the war.
“There’s just no justification – except the VA doesn’t want to spend the money,” said Sam Genco, a 69-year-old blue water veteran who lives in Pine Knoll Shores, North Carolina.