Press Release

Gillibrand, Gibson & Tonko Announce New Push To Help Thousands of “Blue Water” Vietnam Vets Harmed By Agent Orange But Ignored By Feds Due To Technicality In The Law

Jul 6, 2015

Albany, NY – Standing at the American Legion Post – Joseph E. Zaloga Post 1520, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representatives Chris Gibson and Paul Tonko today announced a new push to pass bipartisan legislation to ensure thousands of Navy veterans known as “Blue Water” vets from the Vietnam War exposed to the powerful toxin Agent Orange will be eligible to receive disability and health care benefits they have earned for diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure. Gillibrand is rallying support for the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015, legislation that would clarify existing law so that Blue Water veterans would be fully covered by the VA if they served within the “territorial seas,” or approximately 12 miles offshore of Vietnam. The bill would make it easier for VA to process Vietnam War veterans’ claims for service-connected conditions and alleviate a portion of the VA’s backlog by extending presumptive coverage of Agent Orange benefits to these veterans. Gillibrand introduced the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015 with Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) on March 15, 2015. Representatives Gibson and Tonko are cosponsors of the House companion legislation.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam to remove jungle foliage. This toxic chemical had devastating effects for millions serving in Vietnam. In 1991, Congress passed a law requiring Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide presumptive coverage to Vietnam veterans with illnesses that the Institute of Medicine has directly linked to Agent Orange exposure.  However, in 2002 the VA determined that it would only cover Veterans who could prove that they had orders for “boots on the ground” during the Vietnam War. This exclusion affects thousands of sailors who may have still received significant Agent Orange exposure from receiving VA benefits.

“Thousands of our veterans are being denied benefits they need and deserve because of a technicality in the law,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, “We owe it to the veterans who bravely served our country and have fallen victim to Agent Orange-related disease to enact this legislation that will provide the disability compensation and healthcare benefits they have earned. Agent Orange is a very difficult chapter in our nation’s history and is past due that we correct the errors of the past.”

“We are fighting for our Vietnam veterans, especially the Navy sailors who were sickened by exposure to Agent Orange aboard their ships but never compensated appropriately,” said Rep. Chris Gibson. “I was proud to introduce the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act in the House, where a bipartisan group of more than 230 Members of Congress have signed on as cosponsors. I am delighted this bill is making progress in the Senate with the support of Senator Gillibrand. As a veteran myself, I appreciate her advocacy on this front. I also want to express my gratitude to Susie Belanger and Carol Olszanecki for their continued hard work on behalf of our Blue Water Navy veterans and families.”

“Our troops and their families sacrifice more than we can imagine, and we must do everything we can to make good on the promises made the day they entered the service,” said Rep. Paul Tonko. “When our current system lets any veteran slip through the cracks, we must act fast to make sure they receive the benefits they have earned through selfless service to our nation. This legislation will bring relief to thousands of veterans, and I thank Senator Gillibrand and Congressman Gibson for again fighting for our military families. I look forward to helping to push this bill across the finish line. “

“The ’causes and affects’ have been known for way too many years and the premise of those who wait and those who receive benefits and the associated health treatment have placed great stress both on the service member and the family member who are the caregivers,” said Thomas Snee, National Executive Director of the Fleet Reserve Association. “The current bill needs to be acted upon and now. Studies of health and geographic placement of ships are not scientific, but real. In both the Australian and Russian studies of their sailors, the findings complement the same operational and health concerns of the United States sailors. The Blue Water Navy Bill has been introduced, and the effects on personnel of whom it has great influence on, and in some cases, death resulted due to unnecessary delays or rejection. This legislation is not about the politics, it is about the veterans who served this nation.”  

“I commend Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for seeking to provide needed benefits to Navy veterans who served in Vietnam,” said Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy. “We owe it to those veterans who are facing debilitating illnesses linked to Agent Orange to provide them with the care they need. They served our country and this oversight should have been corrected long ago.”    

 “As an advocate, and the wife of a veteran afflicted by exposure to Agent Orange, I have witnessed firsthand the effects of this most toxic chemical. Not only has their exposure caused the health issues they suffer today, but has devastated them financially,” said Susie Belanger, Director of Special Projects, Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association and Deputy Chief of Staff, Military Advocacy, Inc. “Passing this bill will not only restore their benefits, but will give them back their dignity Act now before it is too late for the surviving veterans.  The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans fight only for their earned and deserved benefits, no more, no less.” 

A May 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine established several “plausible routes” for Agent Orange exposure through the water distillation process aboard Navy ships and through the air. In 2010, a study by the Institute of Medicine cited exposure to Agent Orange resulted in an increased chance of developing serious heart problems and Parkinson’s disease. A 1990 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed Vietnam veterans had a rate of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 50 percent higher than the general population. Agent Orange is linked to a range of other diseases, including several blood and respiratory cancers, type II diabetes, prostate cancer and more.

In 2005, the VA’s former Director of Environmental Agents Service Dr. Mark Brown publicly acknowledged that there was no scientific basis for the exclusion of Blue Water Vietnam veterans, but the VA has continued to refuse these veterans presumptive benefits Congress initially intended. In his article in the Journal of Law and Policy, Dr. Brown wrote, “Science does not back up the VA’s policy on the Navy.”