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Health and Benefits

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran Act

On June 25, 2019, President Trump signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran Act into law.   The new law fills a hole in the disability protection for veterans who served in Korea during the 1960s and for Navy and Marine Veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.  Vietnam War veterans battled for decades to have Agent Orange related disabilities recognized by the U.S. government. The new law is another step in validating their claims.

What was Agent Orange and How Was it Used?

From 1961 to 1971, the U.S. Military engaged in a massive defoliation campaign in Vietnam.  The campaign was called “Operation Ranch Hand.”  Operation Ranch Hand was a chemical warfare program designed to cripple the North Vietnamese by destroying their crops and forests.  Another goal was to impair the Viet Cong’s ability to hide in the dense Vietnamese forests by killing off the plants and trees used for concealment and cover. Defoliation would prevent the enemy from sneaking up and launching surprise attacks on South Vietnam’s villages and on American troops.  Over that 10-year period, the U.S. military sprayed 20 million gallons of herbicides over Vietnam’s forests and north Vietnamese crops.  They dumped the chemical herbicide in rivers, forests, and water sources used by enemy combatants. 

One of the main herbicides used was Agent Orange.  During the 1960’s, the military color-coded herbicides. They also had Agent Green, Agent Blue, Agent Purple, and Agent White.  However, Agent Orange was by far the most widely used and most effective of the chemical herbicides.  Unfortunately, Agent Orange contained tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, a deadly carcinogen, commonly called dioxin.  At the time, scientists were well aware dioxin had the potential to cause injury and disease, but the U.S. military discounted the risk. 

Military officials, intent on the deforestation program, believed our troops were not facing serious risks.  After all, it was the enemy getting doused with herbicides, not U.S. troops. It was the enemy’s forests and crops being destroyed.   No one thought about the wind carrying the spray to American and South Vietnamese forces.  They did not think about the troops wading through jungle waters that had been carried down from contaminated areas.  In 1988, Dr. James Clary, who had been an Air Force researcher working on Operation Ranch Hand, wrote a letter to Senator Tom Daschle.  In his letter, he said: “When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide.  However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned.  We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”  Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but those researchers certainly had tunnel vision.

The average G.I. was unaware of the long-lasting effects of dioxin, but they soon learned how devastating it could be.  Dioxin is highly toxic even in tiny doses. In Vietnam, the military sprayed 20 times the recommended dose.  It persists in the environment for many years.  The half-life of the chemical is 9-15 years, meaning that after 15 years, the concentration will be half what it was at the time of application.  Because the soil and waterways in Vietnam were repeatedly and heavily sprayed, there is still dioxin present in soil, water, and the food chain today.  Government reports from Vietnam state 400,000 Vietnamese people were killed or maimed by Agent Orange exposure.

Agent Orange came under medical scrutiny after doctors noticed returning Vietnam veterans and their families reporting a range of illnesses from rashes to cancer to birth defects. 

In 1979, lawyers filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 2.4 million veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.  Five years later, 5 manufacturers agreed to an out of court settlement and paid $180 Million in compensation to veterans and their families.

Conditions Resulting from Exposure to Agent Orange.

Over the years, medical researchers compiled more and more evidence proving that Agent Orange was the culprit in many debilitating conditions Vietnam veterans were experiencing. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law which mandated that certain specific diseases caused by Agent Orange be treated as wartime conditions deserving of disability benefits from the V.A.  Those specific recognized conditions include:

  • AL amyloidosis
  • Chloracne or other acneform disease similar to chloracne. (must be chronic and 10% disabling)
  • Chronic B-cell leukemias
  • Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus
  • Hodgkin’s Disease
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Peripheral Neuropathy, Early Onset
  • Porphyria cutanea tarda (liver dysfunction and skin blistering in the sun)
  • Prostate cancer
  • Respiratory cancers (lung, bronchus, larynx, trachea)
  • Soft-tissue sarcoma (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or mesothelioma

The 1991 Act also provides benefits to children of Vietnam and Korean DMZ veterans who were born with spina bifida.  (Spina bifida is a birth defect where the spine does not close).

While the 1991 Agent Orange Act provided relief for many veterans, a change in the regulations in 2002 deprived many Marine and Navy veterans of their right to benefits.  The Blue Water Navy Act was designed to remedy that situation.

What the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran Act Does.

The Act extends disability coverage to include Navy and Marine veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975.  To be eligible, these veterans must have served within 12 nautical miles of the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia in areas specifically designated in the law. Because military planes sprayed so heavily, winds carried Agent Orange offshore to expose military personnel on ships patrolling the coast and transporting supplies and troops to Vietnam.

The Act also covers veterans who served in Korea’s DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between September 1, 1967, and August 31, 1971.  It will also cover children with spina bifida born to veterans who served in Thailand between January, 1962 and May, 1975.

There are still some veterans who are not covered by the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran’s Act.  Many of these are sailors and marines who were exposed to Agent Orange when contaminated water from the Mekong surged into the South China Sea.  They are not covered by the delineated areas set out in the statute.  These veterans must continue to fight to have their exposure and their disabilities recognized.



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