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Do right by Blue Water veterans

September 26, 2018

They served in the Vietnam War and handled Agent Orange, the powerful defoliant that causes cancer, heart disease and many other ailments.

But as Express-News reporter Bill Lambrecht recently outlined, these veterans have been denied benefits for certain medical problems possibly caused by Agent Orange exposure simply because they served offshore.

They might have been mechanics or radarmen on aircraft carriers out at sea. Not fighting inland, but serving the country and potentially being exposed to Agent Orange in that service.

The Department of Veteran Affairs has argued there is no definitive proof that exposure to Agent Orange has led to particular ailments, and so there is no reason to provide disability benefits to so-called Blue Water Navy veterans. These veterans are suffering from cancers and diseases fairly common for people in their 60s or 70s, VA officials have said.

It was an argument used in 2002 to take benefits away from these Blue Water Vietnam veterans, and it’s been deployed again to stop an effort to restore those benefits. In June, the U.S. House approved legislation, 382-0, to restore Agent Orange benefits and medical care to offshore veterans. But it has since stalled in the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The concern is cost. There are about 90,000 offshore veterans lacking access to these benefits. Providing them would cost the VA $6.7 billion over 10 years, but House legislation offered an offset: increased fees on VA home loans. The VA has said this is unfair to the overall veteran population, but denying meaningful health benefits to deserving veterans seems far more unfair.

As former VA Secretary David J. Shulkin has said, “It’s too late for us to be able to get solid scientific evidence, so we just have to do the right thing.”

And the right thing is restoring these benefits, tax-free disability checks of $100 to $2,000 a month, for offshore veterans.

The military used Agent Orange to clear and burn forest and crops, removing enemy cover and destroying food sources. The defoliant contains dioxin, a known cancer-causing agent. It settled in rivers and then was churned up by shipping, including by the military.

Veterans have argued ships would pump contaminated water on board and then distill it for drinking.

So much time has passed that it would be next to impossible to come to any definitive conclusion about Agent Orange exposure for Blue Water Navy veterans, and time is not on their side. They are aging and dying, and they deserve the same benefits as their inland counterparts.

The right thing to do is to restore these benefits for veterans who served this country and may have been harmed by that service.

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