VA expansion of Agent Orange excludes some exposed veterans, advocates say

Abbie Bennett
January 02, 2020 - 1:58 pm

Huey Defoliation National Archives: 111-CC-59948, originally found in Box 1 Folder 9 of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Collection: Agent Orange Subject Files.

On Jan. 1, 2020, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it began processing disability claims for veterans exposed to Agent Orange while serving aboard ships in the territorial seas of Vietnam. 

But a veterans advocacy group says the new policy still excludes some veterans exposed to the deadly herbicide on ships and in aircraft during the Vietnam War.

VA is expected to start processing Blue Water Navy claims Jan. 1. Here's what to know.

“This may be a good start,” Rob Maness, retired Air Force colonel and executive director of Louisiana-based Military-Veterans Advocacy (MVA), said in a statement. “But the battle continues. The new policy specifically exempts those veterans who flew close air support missions and those who served outside of the territorial sea.”

In 2019, a federal court ruled that VA must recognize veterans exposed to Agent Orange who served offshore, the so-called Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans. Congress and the president passed and signed into law the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act to further codify that decision. 

But some veterans could be left out. 

“The VA has chosen to interpret the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act too narrowly,” said retired Navy Commander John B. Wells, MVA chairman of the board and director of litigation. “The Congressional action was poorly worded and provided ambiguities seized on by the VA to limit coverage.  Although the Act did not replace the original law and did not supersede Procopio, the VA’s constricted reading effectively does so."

That could be particularly true for pilots, who were not explicitly included in the Blue Water legislation or in the court decision. 

“Often these Air Force and Navy pilots flew through clouds of Agent Orange to perform their mission,” Maness said. “They should be covered.”

Service members who worked on the perimeter in Thailand, where Agent Orange was also used, are covered. But those who worked or even slept near the perimeter and who may have been exposed, are also left out.

“This policy is way too narrow,” said Bill Rhodes, retired Marine staff sergeant, Thailand veteran and MVA director of Thailand veterans. “Many of the barracks backed up to the perimeter and personnel who did not have duties on the perimeter slept there, yet they are not covered. Additionally, vehicles and personnel would track the herbicide into the base interior, increasing the exposure.”

The Army Field Manual on herbicide exposure required a 500-meter buffer area for spraying, Rhodes said. But service members who worked in that buffer area also are not covered under the new policy. Nor are service members stationed on Johnston Island, where Agent Orange was stored and leaked, said Brian Moyer, MVA director of Central Pacific islands.

"Leakage from the steel barrels, stored in the open salt air, resulted in the exposure of military personnel in the area," he said. 

The island of Guam, where MVA says testing showed the presence of herbicides as late as 1980, also is not covered in the new policy, though MVA has made a request from VA already to include it. 

“We are reviewing our options and may seek judicial review of this policy," Wells said. 

For more information on filing an Agent Orange disability claim, click here

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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