"Blue Water" Vietnam Vets Win Agent Orange Benefits

American C-123 aircraft deploy Agent Orange over Vietnam (undated, USAF)

By The Maritime Executive 03-26-2019 05:47:04

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to end its long effort to exclude Vietnam veterans with blue-water naval service from care and compensation for Agent Orange-related illnesses. The VA lost a lawsuit on the issue in January at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and on Tuesday it said that it would not encourage the Justice Department to pursue any further appeals. 

Agent Orange, a defoliant used widely during the Vietnam conflict to remove tree cover, contained the dioxin TCDD, which has since been classified as a carcinogen. Veterans who were exposed to it on shore - or in the riverine "brown water" U.S. Navy presence in Vietnam - are eligible for medical benefits for a range of associated illnesses.

Until now, Navy and Marine Corps veterans who served off the coast did not qualify, as the VA argued that there was no reason to suspect that they had been exposed. For years, the agency's policy was that “mere service on a deepwater naval vessel in waters off shore of the Republic of Vietnam is not qualifying service in Vietnam.” (Those who had served on ships that moored at Vietnamese ports or vessels that went into Vietnamese waterways could qualify on a case-by-case basis.)  

The plaintiffs argued that they could have been exposed to Agent Orange indirectly, by drinking distilled water made on board the ship from coastal seawater. If the seawater were contaminated with minute levels of Agent Orange from runoff on shore, they proposed, the distillation process could have concentrated it in the ship's freshwater supply. An expert committee from the National Academy of Sciences studied this hypothesis and could not reach a conclusion because of a lack of information about runoff levels. 

Under the direction of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, VA keeps a list of illnesses that it will automatically cover for veterans who are recognized victims of Agent Orange exposure. These include many illnesses associated with aging and a range of cancers, including multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Parkinson's disease, early onset peripheral neuropathy, soft tissue sarcomas, chloracne, Type 2 diabetes, Hodgkin's lymphoma, ischemic heart disease, porphyria, prostate cancer, AL amyloidosis, chronic B-cell leukemia and respiratory cancers. VA estimated that the extra cost of providing care for these illnesses for the population of blue-water Navy veterans would be about $5.5 billion over ten years.