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Blue Water Battle

Sailors suffer illness, disability as VA denies Agent Orange benefits to an entire class of Vietnam veterans.


Robert Ross heard the low-flying plane heading his direction as he stood on the signal bridge of USS Vega on a late-summer day in 1966. Bathed in Southeast Asian sunshine, he was listening to Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons when he looked up just in time to get a face full of spray.“The officer on deck was panicking,” Ross recalls. “They hollered, ‘Everybody inside! Agent Orange!’ But it was too late.”Forty-three years later, time is running out for Ross and tens of thousands of other sailors suffering from various cancers, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and heart conditions caused by Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. For nearly a decade, VA, acting on a Bush administration directive and a punitive court decision, has severed their benefits or denied their claims. Under these new VA rules, so-called “Blue Water” and “Blue Sky” veterans are deemed not to have suffered any ill effects from the millions of gallons of toxic defoliant spread across the jungles during the war, regardless of any contact they may have had with it. The government’s rationale: they did not set foot on land or couldn’t meet VA’s stringent requirements for proof that they were exposed.“VA acts as if there is an invisible shield at the shoreline,” says David Greenberg, a Navy veteran. “In reality, Agent Orange blew out over the ocean. It also fell into the rivers and streams that fed out into the ocean. (And) because Navy ships distilled Agent Orange-tainted seawater for cooking, drinking and showering, it’s incomprehensible for VA to deny we were exposed.”Denise Ross, whose husband is fighting for benefits, calls VA’s treatment of Agent Orange veterans disgraceful. “They have lost everything. They have no way to support themselves. They are dying at an incredible rate. And VA treats them as if they are lying.” Their last hope: legislation backed by The American Legion and other veterans groups that would restore the Agent Orange benefits Congress first authorized in 1991 for everyone who served in the Vietnam War – on land, in the air or at sea. Operation Ranch Hand. The U.S. military sprayed 20 million gallons of the deadly dioxin-based herbicide in Vietnam and Laos to strip the dense jungle that gave the enemy cover, to destroy their crops, and to clear ground for U.S. fire bases.Operation Ranch Hand ran from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. VA still required proof of exposure, beginning in the 1970s when veterans first raised concerns about their own strange illnesses and birth defects among their children, says Bart Stichman, joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which has represented Agent Orange victims since the 1970s. VA conceded that chloracne, skin lesions caused by chemical exposure, was connected to Agent Orange exposure in 1978. And in 1984, Congress ordered VA to assemble a committee of scientists to study whether the list of illnesses presumed to be caused by Agent Orange should be expanded. A responded by handpicking scientists, some of whom had worked for chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange, Stichman says. In essence, “they denied everybody,” Stichman says.By then, there were 800 studies on dioxin, the key toxin in Agent Orange. VA’s committee “reviewed a couple dozen studies” in 10 months, Stichman says. His group sued, and a federal court in California ordered VA to start over.Meanwhile, Dow, Monsanto and other Agent Orange manufacturers settled a class-action lawsuit with veterans. The $180 million settlement didn’t go far but was important in making the case for health problems the herbicide inflicted.Congressional Reprieve. By 1990, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the 3 million veterans who served in Vietnam suffered a 50-percent-higher rate of non‑Hodgkin’s lymphoma than veterans who didn’t serve in Southeast Asia. VA then added that lone cancer to a short list of Agent Orange illnesses it would cover.Realizing VA would never go far enough, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991. The legislation made it clear that anyone who served in the war – whether on land or in Vietnam’s territorial waters – was presumed to have been exposed and should receive VA benefits for illnesses caused by it. It also called for the National Academy of Sciences to determine which diseases were connected to Agent Orange. Over the next decade, soft-tissue sarcoma, lung, trachea and larynx cancer, multiple myleoma, Type 2 diabetes and other diseases were added to the list of Agent Orange conditions VA would cover. Meanwhile, the Royal Australian Navy discovered that running dioxin-tainted seawater through its ships’ distilling machines – identical to equipment the U.S. Navy used to supply cooking, drinking and bathing water to ships in Vietnam – magnified the dioxin’s strength, Stichman says. A study by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academies of Science, later confirmed that. The fortunes of Blue Water veterans changed after George W. Bush became president. In 2002, VA quietly rewrote its rules to require that all veterans prove they had physically set foot in Vietnam – known as “boots on ground” – to qualify for Agent Orange benefits. “They didn’t go through formal rule-making,” Stichman says. VA started denying new claims and cutting off Blue Water veterans who previously had been receiving benefits. This occurred even though a greater percentage of Vietnam War sailors developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma than those who served with ground forces. “So a guy who gets benefits from 1996 to 2002 for trachea cancer found his benefits severed,” Stichman explains. The sole exception was veterans with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Haas’ Legal Voyage. Jonathan L. Haas thought he had legal grounds to challenge VA’s sudden exclusion of some 500,000 Vietnam War sailors who became known as the Blue Water veterans. He remembered clouds of Agent Orange drifting from the shore and engulfing his ammunition tender, the Mount Katmai. Forty years later, he filed an Agent Orange claim for diabetes and kidney problems.Haas fought all the way to the Supreme Court, with the help of the National Veterans Legal Services Program and a friend-of-the-court brief from The American Legion. He lost. And when the high court refused to hear Haas v. Nicholson in early 2009, it effectively affirmed VA’s right to rewrite the rules and prevent Blue Water veterans from receiving Agent Orange benefits.The Bush administration also pushed for legislation prohibiting Blue Water veterans from qualifying for presumptive Agent Orange exposure. The effort failed. But the Haas decision prevented tens of thousands of sick and disabled Blue Water veterans from getting VA benefits, including Thomas J. Laliberte, a naval photographer who serviced aerial reconnaissance cameras on the A‑5 Vigilantes that flew from USS Constellation in the Gulf of Tonkin. The airplanes flew in areas recently sprayed with Agent Orange and periodically landed in Vietnam, accumulating dioxin residue, Laliberte says. He routinely worked on the airplane cameras and camera pods after these missions.A computer programmer, truck driver and pressman since leaving the service, Laliberte says he was never sick until he was overcome with fatigue in August 2006. He couldn’t keep up at work and was laid off from his printing-plant job. Two weeks later, Laliberte was hospitalized with multiple myeloma. His kidney failure was so profound that he was “within days of dying,” Laliberte says.His wife divorced him five months later. Laliberte was left only with Social Security disability benefits and temporarily moved in with a friend. VA has denied his Agent Orange-exposure claim, and he’s still living in his friend’s spare room. “I feel abandoned,” Laliberte says, his voice hoarse from the steroids he takes to calm the side effects of chemotherapy. “I know I was there. I know I was exposed. And I feel that way not only for myself, but for the thousands of veterans who need help but can’t get the health care they need.”Three years ago, Laliberte joined the newly formed Veterans Association of Sailors of the Vietnam War and now serves as its president. Together with The American Legion and other veteran groups, the VASVW is pushing legislation to restore veterans’ Agent Orange benefits.Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, stressed urgency before hearings he called in May. “Congress’ original intent was to provide these veterans with benefits based on their exposure to Agent Orange and other deadly herbicides ... regardless of arbitrary geographic line-drawing,” he wrote in a letter to his colleagues.VA declined to address specific issues raised by veterans in this article. But in a statement prepared for The American Legion Magazine, VA noted it has proposed adding hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease to the list of illnesses presumed to be connected to Agent Orange exposure, and “is committed to pursuing all medical research efforts that improve our understanding of diseases that could be presumptively service-connected.”Ross’ Dying Wish. Nevada veteran Robert Ross wonders if he’ll outlive the VA appeals process. He developed blistering sores on his back in the 1970s and diabetes in 1995. He suffered heart failure in 2001, but is not a transplant candidate because of kidney problems. He had thyroid cancer, suffers from neuropathy, and fights an indigestion problem. Two years ago, doctors likened his life expectancy to that of a terminal-cancer patient.Ross filed a claim with the Reno, Nev., VA in 2008. He was denied as a result of the Haas ruling. He cannot prove he took the face full of spray that late-summer day in 1966. He cannot prove he was close enough to the shore to see people’s faces. He cannot prove his ship was tied to a dock on several trips into Da Nang Harbor to re-supply U.S. ships.“People are under the impression that these men have access to proof of where they were all of the time, of incidents that occurred while they were on ship, and every location of their ship,” Denise Ross says. “It was wartime. A lot of that information wasn’t put in the ship’s log or written down.”Ross filed a notice of disagreement with the Reno VA in April 2009. “We provided them the doctor’s letter that said my husband has a year to live,” Denise says. “I begged them. I said, ‘My husband is dying.  Can’t you just deny his claim so we can file an appeal?’ We’re concerned about our son, who has asthma and other medical issues.”That denial finally came this spring, a year after the Rosses’ urgent plea. They will appeal this summer. The case will drag on perhaps another year – a year Ross might not have. The Rosses, like Laliberte, are putting their hope in the legislation.“Every senator and member of Congress has the responsibility to step in immediately,” Denise says. “They can’t put a stop to the suffering. But they can restore the benefits that have been denied these men. I want it made right not just for my husband, but for everyone.” Ken Olsen is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.

 

Speartip12

July 12, 2013 - 7:19pm

WESTPAC deployment USS Constellation (CVA-64) January 1973 - October 1973 assigned to RVAH-12, off the coast of Vietnam.

liza1447

April 1, 2012 - 11:05am

My husband served on the USS Vega from 67-70. He did 2 tours to the same area in the article. In the past 12 years, he has had renal cell carcinoma, numerous strokes, a heart attack and now has a mass on his pancreas that the VA surgeon will be taking out in a few weeks. There is no strong history of cancer in his family, but because he was in the Navy, the doctors have already ruled out the possibility of exposure to any deadly chemicals from his tours. We are going to take this article with us, as well as do more research before the surgery. Because it isn't 'service' related, the costs are more than if he went to a civilian hospital! Any ideas or suggestions? Thanks

aethomasthomas

February 10, 2012 - 7:34pm

I am a 1965-66 Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran. IN 1966 I sufered 5-4 Ischemic strokes and one Ischemic Heart attack in 2008. IN 2010 I was sent to the Minneapolis VA Hospital for a benefits exam. The Doctor said I was service connected. The Va said, the Doctor can't say so. Since 1997. I have had claims in, all denied. Politicians cant do diddly.

eober

November 9, 2011 - 7:54pm

Is there any way that the American Legion can start a confidential web page for our blue water veterans to log onto with their name or a code number showing their ship, when they served, and their Agent Orange related disabilities?
I think those opposed need to see the figures from the veterans not from the VA!

I am a veteran's service rep with several BW claims denied and appealed.

Vet advocate

September 24, 2010 - 8:00pm

I am sorry to notify you that another of our Sailors, Mr. Tom Laliberty, has lost his battle with cancer.
Tom was kind enough to share his story, even some of it's sad details, of the problems that our Blue Water Navy Veterans having served in the Republic of Vietnam continue to face on a daily basis. Tom was President of The Veterans Association of Sailors of the Vietnam War and contiuned his participation even from his hospital bed.
He was our friend and touched our hearts forever.
His story was shared in the article by Ken Olsen, "Blue Water Battle". Thank you Ken, you allowed us to share a moment in history with an honorable man.

The world lost a friend today. Tom passed on, still being denied benefits for his illness and disability caused by Agent Orange.

Jack Waldron

September 10, 2010 - 12:55am

The USS Neches (AO-47) dropped anchor and unrepped the USS Krishna (ARL-38) in An Thoi on SEPTEMBER 28,1967. [Deck Logs are key and I deeply regret my error.]

Jack Waldron

August 15, 2010 - 2:39pm

USS Neches (AO-47) dropped anchor and unrepped the USS Krishna (ARL-38) in An Thoi in October, 1968. Why didn't the VA list the Neches as a ship exposed to Agent Orange????????

hbgva86

August 2, 2010 - 8:37pm

My husband served in Vietnam on the USS America in 1972,1973. In 2006 he was diagnosed with Diabetes II, had 6 bypass surgery, had 2 strokes, has neurothrophy all over, seizures, skin problems, high blood pressure, eye hemorrage, We applied for compensation and was denied today due to he did not step on land. What do I do now? I am the only income, my husband cannot get SS, SSI or food stamps and my salary is not doing it. Any suggestions. J & B Gossett

Terry OToole

August 16, 2010 - 4:30pm

I'm a lawyer and veteran who had been trying to help some blue water sailors who face the same problem. I don't charge for my services because I don't want to see deserving veterans denied. If you want me to look at your veteran's case, I will do so without charge and provided the case is not too complicated. My email is totoole@bryancave.com.

Albert D. lepage MM1, USN retired

November 17, 2014 - 12:53pm

I have been denied compensation by the VA for prostate I believe from Agent orange I am preparing my Rebuttal ,and would like for you review my Doc.

exusnr76

July 22, 2010 - 5:20pm

A Board of Veterans' Appeals ("BVA") ruling dated November 2, 2009 and captioned Docket No. 04-00-250 states in part: "The evidence of record clearly shows that Da Nang Harbor is well sheltered and surrounded on three sides by the shoreline of Vietnam. The harbor is nearly totally surrounded by land and that the entire harbor is located within the territorial boundaries of Vietnam. As such, given the location of the harbor as being surrounded by the land on three sides and the evidence that the harbor is within the territory of Vietnam..the Board finds that Da Nang Harbor is an inland waterway for the purposes of the regulation." BUT!...the ruling also states that the veteran "set foot on land" and this appears to remain a major hurdle in such matters, especially for those of us who cannot prove we went ashore.

Gary Halsey Sr.

July 17, 2010 - 1:14am

My name is Gary W. Halsey Sr., I am related to Admiral William "Bull" Halsey. I served 3 tours over in Vietnam, and I am here to tell you that I have claims filed, and if denied, I will take them to my representative in my states local government, (Jan Brewer) and also to my rep in Congress. I have them claims filed for PTSD, severe heart problems, (double by-pass), also a diabetic, and asbestosis, not to mention problems with my feet. They sometimes swell up so big, that I can't wear a pair of shoes. I am hear to tell you that when I read this article, and the following comments that follow, plus when I read the articles and issues in VNVETS website, I am really concerned about how I will leave this world, and what will become of my wonderful wife of 28 years? It is a sad state of affairs when one who serves their country, and is put in harms way, that our government will not even acknowledge the blue water Navy! I am ashamed of my government.

Matthew Hill

July 9, 2010 - 9:14am

Terry,

I represent a veteran who was in Da Nang harbor. I would appreciate your cite to the treaty. And any information that you can give about the expert who discussed the currents from the Mekong Delta.

Thank you Matthew Hill

mdhill@hillandponton.com

Mike Brown

July 8, 2010 - 5:41pm

I tied down planes and often hit projections below the a4 skyhawks and usually had no shirt on when untying them. I was on the USS Hancock CVA19 . I developed prostate cancer sept 06. Had radical prostetectomy nov 06. A neighbor flew through vietnam in 70 on the way to thailand. He was allowed to step off the plane while they were refueling to have a cigarette. He was on the ground for 20 minutes. He was also diagnosed with prostate cancer. He has been recieving va care and disability since. His operation was free. Mine cost 22 thosand dollars. He never served in vietnam . I worked on the flight deck for 9 months 18 hours a day 7 days a week.I get NO benefits......

Michael Ducharme

May 19, 2014 - 2:30am

Mike Brown, Not sure if you are the same one I worked with on the flight Deck of the USS Hancock 68-69 ? Are originally from Alabama ? I was a Blue Shirt tying down aircraft. I had to have a 5 way heart bypass with no family background of heart Disease. I flew off in the Cod but cannot prove
boots on ground so denied Agent Orange. 707-753-1850

Terry OToole

July 8, 2010 - 10:35am

An expert oceanographer who has studied the Mekong River and Delta has opined in my client's case that Mekong River water, ladened with Agent Orange, composes a significant part of the coastal current that hugs the coast of Viet Nam. This current extends well out to sea such that deep draft vessels plying coastal waters would be sailing in more "brown water" than "blue". He explains that attempting to draw a line at the inland water boundary is impossible and arbitrary. In fact, when seasonal winds in Vietnam shift to the southeast from the northwest, coastal inland waters may be more blue water than brown.

laurenlarsen

July 2, 2010 - 4:37pm

There's a lot of noise out there about supporting our troops, which usually means "support whatever war we're currently engaged in." If we really want to support the troops, we ought to be helping folks like the ones in this article. Well done, Mr. Olsen. Thank you for sharing these important truths about a broken system.

exnavy4

June 26, 2010 - 8:37pm

I hate to say it this way, but I'm glade to hear that there are other's that are having problems with the VA. I wonder why sometimes I stayed in the Naval Reserves for 25 years. VA is tell me that since there is nothing in my medical record no claim. I have ringing in both ears. I am a vet of two wars.

Vet advocate

June 25, 2010 - 4:57pm

I would like to express thanks to Jeff Stoffer, the editor of The American Legion Magazine for having the courage to publish this article and allowing Ken Olsen the resources to investigate and write this story.

Thank you and please continue your support for these forgotten Blue Water Navy Veterans.

Great job!

Robert and Denise Ross

Terry OToole

July 8, 2010 - 10:43am

Mr. & Mrs. Ross, I'm a lawyer representing a client who has encountered a situation similar to yours. In doing some research, I discovered that Da Nang harbor is considered an "inland water" under an international convention dating from the 1950s to which the US and many other nations are signatories. I don't see how VA can claim that Da Nang Harbor is not an inland water whether ships entering the harbor docked or not. I'll be happy to give your or your advocate the citation to this treaty. Best of luck.

exusnr76

July 20, 2010 - 3:58pm

Mr. O'Toole:

I would very much appreciate receiving the citation you mentioned describing Da Nang harbor as an "inland water." I am a former Naval Reservist who served in a fuel and ammunition supply ship in the coastal waters of Quang Tri province, South Vietnam, in 1972-73.

Like your client and many others concerned, we also had occasion to enter Da Nang harbor and frequently operated in close proximity to shore (where the water was either brown, green, gray, blue or a multitude of shades in between depending on light, season, currents, etc.). Thus, the realization that in the opinion(s) of counsel of the VA I did not in fact "serve in Vietnam" came as something of a surprise. (Particularly so since my DD-214 expressly states "Served in Vietnam" in the "Remarks" box.)

I am not sick (yet?) but it is an everpresent source of concern and my heart goes out to my fellow veterans who are.

Tim S. Smith
exusnr76@hotmail.com

Sleeping Tiger

July 8, 2010 - 7:32pm

Hello Terry

I'm one of those being denied benefits.
I would appreciate hearing about your progress in your suit against the V A.
I believe that unless congress gets it,s ass in gear , we will all die before they come to our aid!
I anchored several times in Da Nang ,and once had to clear out under heavy fire. Not to mention several Wes Pak tours off the coast, close enough to see the Cong running around!
As you and I both know ,the orange stopped on the waterline!
Good luck in your endeavors.
Ron
sleepingtiger@usa.com

John Setzke

June 22, 2010 - 7:19pm

I was aboard the Vega at the same time as Mr. Ross and absolutely remember being in DaNang for resupply purposes. At one time we also had a beach party on the beach at DaNang. In 2004 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer which I understand was on the VA list of diseases caused by Agent Orange. This particular cancer is no longer on the VA list. Seems the VA is not an advocate for veterans rather a pawn for whatever regime is in office. I had prostatectomy on 2005 and am now cancer free but still should be eligible for VA benefits. I am not holding my breath though knowing what Mr Ross and his family have and are now going through.

W5EAK

June 21, 2010 - 10:08pm

We pray this time Congress will pass HR-2254 and S-1939. My claim was filed in June of 2003 and as of today, I still don't have any Service Connected Disability. I have been given "Last Rites" three times so far, my health is very poor as I have 3 of the conditions caused by Agent Orange. Please ask everyone you know to push their Congressman and Senators to pass this bill now!

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