10.15.2018 0

Time is running out to help out the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Vets, just give them a vote

By Robert Romano

S. 422, “The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2018,” would extend the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange to Navy veterans who served aboard ships off the shore of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

My father, Anthony, was a boatswain’s mate on the U.S.S. Coral Sea from 1966 to 1968. Recently, he learned that his illnesses could be linked to exposure. He has had two heart attacks (he had his first heart attack when he was 30), recently had a lung removed because of cancer and suffers from diabetes, all without any prior family history.

The veterans advocate he spoke to told him he had a trifecta of illnesses that have been linked to exposure and that if he had set foot on Vietnamese soil just once he most certainly would have qualified for the benefits that are currently extended to land-based military personnel who also are presumed to have been exposed under “The Agent Orange Act of 1991,” which passed both chambers unanimously.

A 2009 federal court ruling upheld the VA’s interpretation of the statute that service members had to have physically been on the land mass in order to qualify for the benefit, although Congress had made no such stipulation.

In addition to the new Senate bill, identical legislation passed the House unanimously 382 to 0 on June 25. The Senate version currently has 52 cosponsors. If it came up for a vote today it would pass.

Whether the reason for my father’s illnesses can be definitively tied to Agent Orange exposure we will never know for certain but here’s what he does know. The House has unanimously told him he was exposed and he deserves the benefit. A majority of the Senate has gone on the record to tell him he was exposed and that he deserves the benefit.

Consider the gravity of what these Navy veterans are being told, especially ones who happen to be sick. Even if I could produce scientific studies for my father to consider — I cannot — that showed he was never exposed, because a majority of both chambers of Congress have gone on the record to say that he was, he will probably never believe any differently.

So far, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has come out opposing the bill, seemingly stopping it dead in its tracks. My parents had real hope up until that point that the legislation was on its way to passage but suddenly it was very much in doubt. Wilkie wants to wait for another study to be done first — 43 years after the war ended — just so it can produce the same inconclusive result.

The reason land-based personnel from Vietnam under current law are presumed to have been exposed is because there is no way to prove one way or another that they were exposed and that the use of herbicides was the cause of their illnesses. If they have a qualifying illness, they simply get treatment under the benefit. No study could ever prove each individual case. The reason the 1991 legislation passed was because if those veterans might have been exposed, and they got sick, Congress wanted to take care of them.

The sad truth is, my father will likely die believing that the government exposed him to toxic chemicals, then it came out and agreed that it was at fault but sadly refused to do a thing about it.

It is unbelievably cruel for politicians to toy with veterans in this way. It’s sick. I don’t know if this is how he got ill or not — I’ll never know for sure — but the fact remains that my father now believes that to be the case. He would have been better off if this bill had never been introduced or at least if he had never visited with the veterans advocate and found out about it.

About 400 Vietnam veterans are dying every day as the Baby Boomers age. My dad just turned 72 years old last week. Do members of Congress facing reelection this November really want these sick Navy veterans to die believing — and their widows — that the government heard their call only to abandon them?

The bottom line is that it is cruel to tell veterans like my dad that they got sick because of their service and then leave it unresolved. President Donald Trump and VA Secretary Wilkie should carefully reconsider the administration’s position on this heart-wrenching issue.

The least the Senate could do is let this come up for a vote. A majority of the Senate supports the bill, and so Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) can let the bill go to the floor. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could bring it up for a vote before the election or afterward. And then if senators wish to go to the floor in opposition, they can cite whatever scientific studies they wish — but let it go to a vote.

At a hearing in September, Isakson said the “issue of dealing with Blue Water Navy is no longer going to be a question. How we do it is going to be the question.”

Veterans Day is coming up next month, and it is my hope that the Senate will not let my father down. The fact is, S.422 is there right now for the Senate to act on, and time is running out for these veterans. Let’s give the Blue Water Navy veterans who served in Vietnam resolution one way or another. Up or down, win or lose, just give them a vote.

Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.

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