COURTNEY LEADS BIPARTISAN LETTER ON AGENT ORANGE TO VA
WASHINGTON, DC —Today, Rep. Joe Courtney (CT-02), ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, joined Republican Rep. David Valadao (CA-21) in sending a letter to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin requesting more information about an ongoing review of VA policy which prevents blue water Navy veterans who served in Vietnam from obtaining presumption of exposure coverage for Agent Orange. Courtney and Valadao were joined by more than ninety of their colleagues in making the request. Courtney is an original cosponsor of legislation that would mandate that the VA provide a presumption of exposure to blue water veterans who served on ships surrounding Vietnam.
“The VA’s decision to continue to deny care and benefits to blue water Vietnam veterans is unacceptable and I am glad that Secretary Shulkin indicated that they may be taking action to correct this,” wrote Courtney. “Like many veterans in my district who regularly share their concerns about this issue with me, I am deeply disappointed in the VA’s continued refusal to cover blue water veterans who served on ships offshore during the Vietnam War. That’s why I continue to push for action to right this wrong for our Navy veterans suffering to this day from exposure to this toxic chemical.”
“I was encouraged when Secretary Shulkin expressed similar dismay over the VA’s current policy toward blue water veterans in recent testimony to Congress. The Secretary testified that he was asking his staff at the VA to review current policy and our bipartisan letter today asks him to make clear whether he has received a report and whether the VA plans to change its policy. It is long past time to right this wrong.”
Congressman David G. Valadao stated, “I am thankful for Secretary Shulkin's commitment to serving our nation's veterans and look forward to working with him to provide all veterans the support they deserve." He continued, "Ensuring our veterans have access to proper medical care is a small, yet important, symbol of gratitude for their service, especially when their medical conditions are a result of active service."
Shulkin’s remarks on the policy toward blue water Navy veterans were made during testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs on May 3, 2017.
Courtney is an original co-sponsor of HR 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017 that currently has 295 bipartisan cosponsors. The legislation introduced into the 115th Congress is the fourth iteration as the bill was also introduced in the 112th, 113th, and 114th Congresses. Rep. Courtney has been a co-sponsor of the legislation each time it has been introduced.
Currently, any veteran who is listed as having “served in the Republic of Vietnam” is presupposed to have been exposed to the herbicide known as Agent Orange. Unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not include blue water Navy veterans under this term because they served in the territorial waters off the coast of Vietnam, and not on the ground or in inland waterways. After a recent federal court decision ordering the VA to reevaluate its definition of inland waterways, the VA reaffirmed that the term only includes service in fresh water rivers, streams, canals, and similar waterways. It does not include veterans who served on ships offshore but were exposed to the agent when polluted seawater was brought onboard for a number of purposes including bathing and cleaning of the vessel.
The full text of the letter is below as well as available online
August 2, 2017
The Honorable David Shulkin
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shulkin:
One of the primary responsibilities of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs is to ensure those who have fought for our freedom are afforded the care and benefits they deserve upon their return home. As you are aware, thousands of veterans who served in the territorial seas of Vietnam or “blue water” are now suffering from higher rates of diseases, and other chronic health conditions, attributed to the exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange. Despite this, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny claims from Blue Water Navy Veterans, creating significant hardship for these brave Americans.
During the Vietnam War, approximately twenty million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over the Republic of Vietnam, contaminating the land, rivers, harbors, and territorial seas. Under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, Blue Water Navy Veterans were initially entitled to presumptive service connection, relieving them of the burdensome process of producing evidence that directly establishes service connection for a specific health condition. However, in 2002, the VA reinterpreted the language of the Agent Orange Act of 1991 to apply only to veterans who served in the inland waterways or set foot in the Republic of Vietnam.
On April 5, 2017, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing on H.R. 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017. During their testimony, VA officials cited costs and lack of scientific evidence as the VA’s reasoning for the 2002 policy change. However, as you are no doubt aware, there are numerous studies indicating plausible scenarios in which Blue Water Navy Veterans could have been exposed to Agent Orange.
For example, a study conducted by the Institute of Medicine shows a plausible pathway for Agent Orange to have entered the South China Sea via dirt and debris from rivers and streams. Additionally, a study conducted by the University of Queensland found the Australian ship distillation system, which is identical to the system used on U.S. Navy ships during the Vietnam War era, in fact enriched the toxic dioxin in Agent Orange. This contaminated water was then used for cooking, cleaning, showering, laundry, and drinking, exposing U.S. Navy personnel to high levels of the toxic chemical.
Furthermore, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims found in Gray v. McDonald that the VA’s definition of “inland waterways” was “arbitrary and capricious”, and the court ordered the VA to redefine “inland waterways” with respect to Da Nang Harbor. It is our opinion the VA did not comply with the court’s decision and, instead, persisted in its policy of excluding many sailors and marines from coverage.
Given the amount of time elapsed since the Vietnam War, it is almost impossible to definitively prove the presence of Agent Orange in the territorial seas of Vietnam, and within the shipboard water distillation systems. However, these studies, combined with higher rates of cancers such as Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma among Blue Water Navy Veterans, leaves no doubt these veterans are entitled to presumption of service connected exposure to Agent Orange. We respectfully request you use your statutory authority to reverse the 2002 decision and afford the presumption of service connection to all veterans with Agent Orange-related diseases who served in the territorial seas of the Republic of Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975.
During your recent testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, you expressed doubts with the VA’s longstanding position on providing presumptive benefits to Blue Water Navy Veterans, and stated you had asked for additional recommendations. In closing, we would like to request an update on whether the Department of Veterans Affairs has since provided you with additional recommendations, and if so, has your department reached a decision?
We thank you for your service to our nation’s Veterans and we look forward to working with you to ensure all veterans who have bravely fought for their country receive the support they deserve upon returning home.
REP. BISHOP JR.
REP. CONYERS, JR.
REP. GONZALEZ COLON
REP. MCMORRIS ROGERS
REP. PALLONE, JR.
REP. PAYNE, JR.
REP. SHEA PORTER