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Legislation aims to help Navy vets exposed to Agent Orange

December 14, 2018

Flathead County resident Gary Thompson is a Blue Water veteran, a term given to those who served on open ships off the shore of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He clearly recalls the details of his offshore encounters with Agent Orange, a blend of toxic herbicides used by the United States military during the war to clear thick jungle foliage.

“We went up some of the rivers within spitting distance of the shore where they sprayed the agent,” said Thompson, a veteran of the U.S. Navy. “We picked it up in our water system, so we were washing in it, drinking it. It’s virtually impossible to get out.”

According to Thompson, his ship consistently traversed close to shores and up rivers where Agent Orange was being sprayed. He said the toxin, which tasted and smelled similar to bug spray, would drift through the air and waterways to the ships that were often situated less than a half-mile from land.

He said at least five of his friends have died, due to Agent Orange-related diseases such as Hodgkin’s disease, respiratory cancer, multiple myeloma and type two diabetes.

Thompson is one of thousands of veterans who served during Vietnam who are now awaiting the fate of the Blue Water Navy Bill - legislation that would extend Veterans Affairs benefits to include offshore veterans who were exposed to the toxin. Currently, benefits are extended only to those who served with their “boots on the ground.”

For months now, the bill has been tossed up and down the halls of Congress.

In June, it unanimously breezed through the House of Representatives with a 382-0 vote. But on Monday, the legislation was struck down on the U.S. Senate floor by one vote, further stalling the bill some have deemed a severely delayed “long-standing promise” to U.S. Vietnam veterans.

“Due to misguided rules imposed by VA, these veterans are ineligible for VA care and benefits because, though they were sent to a foreign war, they were stationed offshore and never stepped foot on mainland Vietnam,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who has largely spearheaded the bipartisan bill.

The legislation has until the end of the year to pass through Congress. According to Tester, efforts will continue in the coming weeks to push it through the Senate.

The lone nay vote was cast by Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, who had expressed budgetary concerns regarding the legislation. The bill is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost more than $1 billion over the next decade, should it pass.

“It’s very disgusting. It goes to prove there is a lot of hot air that comes out of Washington when talking about our veterans,” said Mike Shepard, a veteran and member of the American Legion in Columbia Falls. “This is long, long overdue.”

In a recent press release, Tester elaborated on how cost should not outweigh the benefits of the bill.

“If we aren’t willing to take care of our veterans when they come home, we should not send them into harm’s way,” Tester said. “We made a promise to those veterans and we must pass our bipartisan Blue Water Navy Veterans Act to live up to it. I won’t stop fighting for the veterans who are counting on this bill to pass before the end of the year.”

Montana alone is home to about 100,000 veterans. Of those veterans, nearly 35,000 served in Vietnam. According to a 2017 report from the Veterans Health Administration, Montana has one of the highest per capita veteran populations in the U.S., at about 1 in every 10 residents.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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