The American Legion welcomed more than 15 veteran service organizations (VSOs) to its National Headquarters office in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 25 for a summit about Agent Orange and helping Blue Water Navy veterans get the recognition and benefits that they deserve. The summit also identified what next steps are necessary for the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to consider new presumptive conditions for awarding disability compensation related to Agent Orange exposure.
Other guests that attended the summit included field experts, congressional staff members, and another 30 or so participants who called in and listened via a conference bridge. Louis Celli, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, led the group discussion.
“There have been a number of bills attempting to address this inequity, and congressional members are refusing to advance these bills based on financial concerns,” Celli said. “To put this into perspective, covering these veterans is estimated to cost approximately $1.1 billion over the next 10 years.”
When former VA Secretary Eric Shinkseki added presumptive illnesses to the Agent Orange schedule several years ago, Celli said he did it without congressional action which costed the VA $13 billion in the first year alone.
“It is our contention that VA did not have the legal authority, subsequent to the Agent Orange Act of 1991, to remove Blue Water Navy (veterans),” said Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Policy and Government Affairs Executive Director Rick Weidman. “They had no scientific evidence whatsoever to back that up.”
According to the Health and Medicine Division website, dioxin-contaminated herbicides like Agent Orange were sprayed in Vietnam to remove trees and dense tropical foliage that provided cover for enemies. This effort, known as Operation Ranch Hand, took place during the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1971.
Concerns regarding the health effects from Agent Orange exposure have led to the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which required the National Academy of Medicine, formerly known as the Institute of Medicine, to conduct a series of scientific and medical studies related to such exposure of dioxide and other chemicals in herbicides.
When it comes to assessing the health effects in Vietnam veterans, researchers have faced a major challenge as individuals have varying levels of blood dioxin and differences in the way their bodies breakdown chemicals.
Jeanne Stellman, professor emeritus of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and member of The American Legion’s PTSD/TBI Committee, was one of the researchers who studied the application of dioxin-based defoliants in Vietnam for the National Academy of Sciences. With the help of her colleagues, Stellman made a remarkable discovery that was initially unnoticed about Operation Ranch Hand – they were “able to show that more herbicide had been dropped than catalogued previously and that dioxin concentration in early herbicide batches were much higher than realized, effectively doubling the amount sprayed,” according to Science Magazine.
“We had to deal with the contention that no one, except the direct handlers, were ever exposed (to Agent Orange),” Stellman said. “There’s never really been a major study of the overall health effects and there’s more than herbicides that’s affecting the health of people in Vietnam.”
Although the National Academy of Medicine conducted a series of peer-reviewed scientific reports via its Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 2014, the Centers for Disease control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Air Force and the VA have since conducted studies in thousands of Vietnam veterans. However, “most of these studies have been limited by the fairly small number of people who were highly exposed to Agent Orange,” according to the American Cancer Society.
“The CDC said in the 1980s that, ‘We can’t do an Agent Orange study because there’s no way of telling what the exposures were,’” Stellman said. “They (eventually) set up something called a validation study, in which blood was taken from veterans who had been part of their larger study and looked at those veterans in 1988 to try and evaluate what their exposures had been in the 1960s.
“But people lose the dioxin or metabolize it away. One of the big contentions that we had to disprove was that everybody in fact had it disappear from their bodies at different rates. This so-called validation study was one that was set up for failure in many ways.”
When some of the scientific community questioned both the science, and even the public-health importance, of studies involving veterans, Stellman said VSOs like the Legion and VVA were there to collaborate with Congress and get the Agent Orange Act passed in 1991. It was the first time that outside scientists played a key role in helping convince lawmakers that such exposure caused lingering health problems, she said.
For Stellman, such research helped alleviate the government’s opposition that an Agent Orange study couldn’t be done.
“We only looked at the people who had dioxin and then we compared it to the military records,” she said. “We showed that there was a very high correlation between proximity to (the herbicide and defoliant sprayed), how close you were in time and space to it, and the amount (an individual) had in their blood. We were also able to show (regarding the CDC’s validation study) that they selected troops from the unit that had the lowest exposure.”
In the last series of its reports about veterans and Agent Orange, the National Academy of Medicine made recommendations and also set up procedures “that will ensure military personnel are followed from the time they are deployed in order to anticipate the possibility of increased risk of health problems that arise later in life, and could be associated with the exposures experienced during their service,” according to the academy’s website.
“I called the Department of Veterans Affairs in Australia to get ideas about what they have been doing,” said Susie Belanger, a special projects director for the Blue Water Navy Association. “Evidently, the Australian government keeps track of all of their military servicemembers – from the time they get out, they’re tracking their health all this time. They want to see what happens to these sailors that have the same health issues as the ground troops.”
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing earlier this year in April to consider H.R. 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017. The bill, in which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would cost $1.1 billion to implement over 10 years, seeks to extend the presumption of Agent Orange exposure to veterans who served in the Blue Water Navy.
As far as The American Legion’s position on H.R. 299, the Legion supports this bill and believes it will correct a wrong that has plagued the Blue Water Navy community, which includes more than 800,000 veterans who served on open sea ships during the Vietnam War.
“It goes back to all the issues that we discussed about toxic exposure overall, which is extremely difficult to advocate for because of all the scientific evidence that’s required,” Celli said. “The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. We’re about three-quarters of the way through the elephant now and we just need to finish up.”
Legionnaire John Wells, who serves as the legal and legislative affairs director for the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, also mentioned the Fighting for Orange-Stricken Territories in the Eastern Region Act (H.R. 809) that would provide presumptive service connection to herbicide exposure for purposes including:
• Eligibility for VA health benefits;
• Veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands or American Samoa during the Vietnam War; and
• Veterans who show symptoms of medical conditions associated with such exposure.
“The younger vets are looking at these things as what’s coming up for the future, not only from what the VSOs do but what Congress is going to do as well,” said Tom Snee, a representative for the Fleet Reserve Association.
“I have nephews who are considering enlisting in the Marine Corps and the Navy,” Agent Orange veteran Brain Moyer added. “But I discouraged them (from doing so) based upon what is happening with Guam, Thailand and the Okinawa veterans. The government and VA are not honoring their word. As a whole blanket, we’re being discriminated against. This is not the America we know; this is not the America we put our lives on the line for.”
Wells requested that The American Legion send out a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, members of Congress and President Donald Trump, reiterating the importance to get this issue resolved.
“It’s been very frustrating; we’ve been pushing this for years,” Wells said. “We have to start the conversation somewhere.”
House VA committee again considered H.R. 299 during a Full Committee markup on Nov. 2. After failing to get unanimous consent to pay for the benefits with a Cost of Living Adjustment round down, committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., pondered offset ideas from his colleagues.
However, Roe said he hasn’t received any ideas within the timeframe that he granted the committee six months ago.
“I can’t go (through) another Veterans Day and not having tried to get this resolved,” Roe said. “It’s difficult to prove this scientifically – I admit that. There’s no question about it. But the presumption ought to be in favor of the veteran.”
Despite strong bipartisan support with over 300 co-sponsors, the House VA committee was unable to pass H.R. 299 due to no agreement or other alternatives being brought forward, according to a press release.
“I’m disappointed we weren’t able to reach an agreement to extend the presumption of exposure for Agent Orange to include Blue Water Navy veterans,” Roe said. “I have spoken to many veterans who said they would be willing to give up less than a dollar a month to do right by Blue Water Navy veterans, and I imagine many veterans around the country feel the same way.”
Based on the National Academy of Medicine’s latest report and associated data and recommendations from the academy’s task force, Shulkin publicly announced on Nov. 1 that he will further explore new presumptive conditions that may qualify for service-connected disability compensation related to Agent Orange exposure.
VA noted in a press release that it will now begin to concurrently conduct a legal and regulatory review of such conditions for awarding compensation to eligible veterans.