July 06, 2015

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

Current Law Requires VA To Provide Benefits For Service Members Exposed To Agent Orange On Dry Ground, But Ignores Vets Off Shore Gillibrand’s Legislation Would Ensure “Blue Water” Vietnam Vets Receive Disability and Health Care Benefits For Diseases Linked To Agent Orange Exposure

Maybrook, NY – Standing at the Maybrook VFW Post 2064, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Sean Patrick Maloney 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. Representative Maloney is a co-sponsor of companion legislation in the House.

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.”

“After fighting for our freedom, veterans are now forced to fight with our government – we owe them better,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the son of a Navy veteran. “This bill will expedite these claims while alleviating some of the current backlog in the VA system. Veterans who are now suffering from Agent Orange-related disease shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get the care they deserve.”

“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 Carol Olszanecki of Ellenville for her continued hard work on behalf of our Blue Water Navy veterans and families.”

“Anybody who served this country and was exposed to these chemicals deserves to be protected and afforded the services and healthcare benefits they need,” said Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus. “I’m thankful that Senators Gillibrand and Daines have stepped up to correct this issue. Veterans from all generations should be given the best possible care that we can provide them.”

"Our Blue Water Navy veterans are not asking for anything that they have not earned and deserve," said Carol Olszanecki, widow of Blue Water Navy Veteran John Olszanecki. “They served their country well in their time of need without question, they should have the support of the Department of Veterans Affairs in return. As President Lincoln said "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."

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.”