Still Adrift

Ann Langston sent a desperate note to her senator in early June asking for help expediting her husband's Agent Orange claim. Bruce Langston had suffered an aneurysm after long bouts with kidney failure, heart disease and diabetes. "We don't have time for formal letters," she wrote.

VA issued its standard response, acknowledging Langston's claim and assuring him of its "sincere desire to decide (his) case promptly." By the time that notice arrived in mid-July, the Vietnam veteran had been dead a month, and Ann was headed for another fight - over $600 in funeral benefits.

"I wanted to shout at the VA," she says. "Twenty years of military service, and you didn't stand behind him."

This sense of heartbreak and disappointment defines the Blue Water veterans community, which lost hundreds of men to Agent Orange-inflicted diseases in 2010 and watched Congress go home without restoring the VA medical benefits the Bush administration eliminated in 2002.

"We've lost so many this past year," says Denise Ross, whose husband, Robert, is fighting to stay alive while his Agent Orange claim plods through the appeals system. "And the ones remaining - their lives are taken over by the illnesses. They are losing their homes, they are dying. It's over."

Indeed, Ann Langston's husband, who served on USS Takelma from June to December 1968, begged her to give up. "Before he died, he told me, ‘Honey, don't do any more. You know the government isn't going to do anything.'"

Final Push. One of the most devastating losses was that of Thomas J. Laliberte, president of the Veterans Association of Sailors of the Vietnam War (VASVW). Laliberte served on USS Constellation in the Gulf of Tonkin. He was healthy until he was hospitalized with multiple myeloma and kidney failure in 2006, he told The American Legion Magazine last spring. VA recognizes multiple myeloma as an Agent Orange-related disease. Yet his claim was denied, because he was a Blue Water veteran - a sailor who cannot prove that he stepped foot in Vietnam or otherwise had direct exposure to the toxic herbicide. Laliberte lost his job and his marriage after becoming ill, and by the time he died in August, he was living in a friend's guest bedroom and getting by on state assistance. His dream was to become self-sufficient again.

"Tom's life is a classic representation of what all of the Blue Water veterans are facing," Ross says. "His death took the wind out of all of our sails. It ended all of our optimism."

Laliberte, Ross and the other Blue Water veterans bet their waning optimism and energy on getting the 111th Congress to take action. The American Legion, VASVW and other veterans groups pushed legislation to restore Agent Orange benefits to anyone who served in Vietnam, whether on land, in the air or at sea.

Former House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., stressed the urgency of passing the bill in a letter to his colleagues. "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," Filner wrote before losing his chairmanship when the majority shifted in the House after last fall's elections.

The Agent Orange Act of 1991 made it clear that all Vietnam War veterans were presumed to have been exposed to the toxic herbicide, and should receive VA benefits for illnesses linked to it. There was good reason for that approach. The U.S. military sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam and Laos to clear the dense jungle where the enemy took cover, as well as to destroy enemy crops and clear areas for U.S. firebases. The spray drifted into rivers, was carried out to sea, and mixed with the seawater that Navy ships distilled for drinking water, cooking, bathing and running the boilers. The distillation process increased the concentration of dioxin, according to a post-Vietnam study by the Royal Australian Navy. The Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academies of Science, later confirmed that finding.

The consequences of the decade-long Agent Orange spraying program began appearing in the 1970s, when veterans reported troubling skin lesions and an increase in birth defects among their children. After considerable court fights and controversy, the chemical's manufacturers settled a class-action lawsuit with veterans. By 1990, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a greater percentage of Vietnam War sailors developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma than veterans who served with ground forces. A year later, Congress authorized Agent Orange benefits and directed the National Academy of Sciences to come up with a list of diseases connected to toxic exposure.

VA restricted the type of servicemembers who could qualify for Agent Orange coverage in the years after the 1991 legislation passed, says Jeff Davis, founder of VASVW. Then, in 2002, the Bush administration quietly implemented rules that require veterans to prove they had stepped foot in Vietnam - the "boots-on-ground" requirement - to qualify for Agent Orange benefits. Even veterans with approved claims, who were being treated for diseases like trachea cancer, were stripped of their benefits, according to the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which has represented Agent Orange-afflicted veterans since the 1970s. That included Blue Water veterans, who served in Vietnam's territorial waters, and Blue Sky veterans, who flew combat and reconnaissance missions.

An appeals court ultimately upheld the Bush administration's decision, even though VA had skirted the formal rule-making process. The Agent Orange Equity Act before the 111th Congress would have restored benefits for anyone with a Vietnam Service Medal or a Vietnam Campaign Medal. Buoyed by the hope that they could get at least a little help for the medical bills they were bequeathing their families, hundreds of Blue Water veterans wrote and called congressional offices. Davis and other veterans met with dozens of congressional staff on Capitol Hill.

Summer Stall. Unfortunately, the effort stalled as Congress started scrutinizing VA plans to recognize Parkinson's disease, hairy cell leukemia and ischemic heart disease as illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure. To the surprise of his fellow veterans, one of the leading skeptics was Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who served with the Marines in Vietnam. Webb asked that the Institute of Medicine revisit its 2007-2008 study that recommended adding the three diseases and restoring benefits for Blue Water veterans. The results won't be released until this summer.

Webb and other members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee also grilled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki over the wisdom and cost of adding ischemic heart disease to the illness list at a hearing in September. Blue Water veterans are convinced that controversy helped kill their bill. Webb's office defends the senator's work as reasonable skepticism.

"Sen. Webb has spent his entire adult life, one way or another, involved in veterans law and assistance, and he takes a back seat to no one in concern for our veterans," says Will Jenkins, Webb's press secretary. "His concerns about Agent Orange benefits centered on maintaining the integrity of our disability-compensation system and improving the presumptive decision-making process, in order to follow the law and ensure we adequately compensate and care for all veterans whose illnesses are service-connected."

By the time Shinseki was defending VA's new Agent Orange presumptions, Blue Water veterans were hearing that efforts to restore their benefits were dead because the price tag was too high. In 2009, VA estimated it would cost $27 billion to restore medical and disability assistance for sailors and airmen exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, as well as for servicemembers stationed in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and a South Pacific island where leaking drums of the herbicide were stored, Davis says. He estimates that the true cost is closer to $3 billion, considering that less than half of the 229,000 Blue Water veterans are still alive to apply for benefits.

Denise Ross, whose husband served on USS Vega, sees more than money in this controversy. "I feel like people say we're lying about the relationship between Agent Orange exposure and the war, even though we give them evidence. I feel like they say we want to be freeloaders. They don't realize that our fathers', husbands' and brothers' lives are cut short - that they lose everything - because of the illnesses."

Brown Water Reprieve. There was some positive news for Vietnam War Navy veterans in 2010. In late September, VA agreed to review the cases of 17,000 sailors who served in Vietnam's rivers and inland waterways - so-called Brown Water veterans - at the urging of Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. The claims had been denied without VA obtaining relevant military records, including the deck logs of the veterans' ships, Akaka's office said.

Even that presents a difficult burden for veterans. "VA says it gets Brown Water Navy information from the Navy," says Charles Yunker, adjutant of The American Legion Department of Kansas. "But no one knows who you go to in the Navy to get information and what information you need. They could at least publish the rules or tell us how to get on the Brown Water Navy list."

Yunker served as a radarman on USS Lloyd Thomas during Vietnam. The destroyer's missions included inserting Australian special forces near a river a few days after Christmas 1970, and some of his shipmates are suffering illnesses directly linked to Agent Orange exposure. Because of the clandestine nature of that and other missions, however, it's difficult to produce the evidence VA requires as Legion service officers help them file claims. "I get very frustrated the way veterans are treated by the government and many politicians," Yunker says.

In early December, VA also announced that it had processed 28,000 claims for the three new Agent Orange presumptions in six weeks, using a new system. Veterans laud VA's efforts to improve the claims-processing system but note that the recent effort does not address the plight of Blue Water veterans, who remain unable to get benefits unless Congress passes the legislation or the Obama administration reverses the Bush administration's rule change.

"It's a little uncomfortable that Secretary Shinseki used the Institute of Medicine statements to back his decision to add those illnesses, yet he will not consider that the IOM also recommended that the Blue Water Navy be covered by the rules of presumptive exposure," Ross says. "The rest of us will still be stuck in the system of trying to prove exposure to Agent Orange."

Retrenching. Despite all of the setbacks, Blue Water veterans and their survivors aren't surrendering. VASVW's Davis, for one, believes that the Agent Orange Equity Act "will be back in some form or another" and that the next House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman will push the bill. "We've had very good bipartisan support in the House," Davis says.

Success will require scaling back legislation, to restore benefits only to veterans who served in Vietnam's territorial waters, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, and the Blue Sky Air Force, Davis says. Additional legislation can then be introduced to provide Agent Orange benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange outside the Vietnam theatre, including servicemembers who dealt with leaking drums of the toxic herbicide stored on Guam, Okinawa, Johnston Island in the South Pacific and other locations.
"I'm hopeful that people will realize their promise to leave no one behind leaves everyone behind," Davis says of the more comprehensive bill that failed in the last Congress.

Laliberte's daughter, Jennifer Carlstrom, and her husband joined VASVW to take up the fight in his stead. "These benefits would have been a huge help to my dad, and possibly could have afforded him the opportunity to get more help in living with his disease," Carlstrom says. "I hope the bill can be passed so other families do not have to suffer as my dad did and our family has."

Ann Langston will also continue to work on behalf of Blue Water veterans as she pursues her late husband's Agent Orange claim and works to get VA to reimburse $600 of his burial expenses. That seemingly small amount is important, considering she still owes $6,000 on her husband's funeral bill, is behind on her house payment, and is dealing with her own health concerns, including a second brain tumor in two years.

Meanwhile, Langston is being asked to prove that her husband's diabetes, heart and kidney diseases were related to Agent Orange exposure to get help with his burial expenses. She is frustrated, but determined.

"I'm not going to give up," Langston says. "I've got God. I've got my family. And if this means other veterans don't have to go through what these Blue Water sailors are going through, then it's worth it."

Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.