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Diane Dimond: Time for VA to Wake Up, Pay Up for Veterans Exposed to Agent Orange

Isn’t it ironic?

In the 1970s, Vietnam veterans returned from an unpopular war to society’s scorn and cries of “Baby killer!”

Over the decades, we began to understand they had been brave and selfless and we learned to treat all returning vets — wounded or not — with understanding and support as they make the transition back into society.

Ironically, we never went back to fully support the Vietnam-era vets who taught us the valuable lesson of honoring our warriors.

Last week I wrote about the injustice I believe has been done to Vietnam veterans who served in out-of-theater places, such as Guam and Okinawa, and who suffer from diseases known to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Veterans Affairs loopholes have been invoked to deny them special AO benefits.

I also mentioned briefly the 200,000 “Blue Water" vets who served on U.S. Navy vessels off the coast of Vietnam. I should have said more about them but space was limited.

Their warships, floating off the Vietnamese coast, sucked up AO contamination from seawater. The deadly toxin infiltrated their shipboard water purification and ventilation systems. They lived with it every day.

Because so many Vietnam vets contracted AO-related diseases, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991. It clearly stated that any veteran who served in the Vietnam Theater from 1962 to 1975 — ashore or afloat — would be eligible for service connected medical treatment and disability benefits if they suffered from one of the 14 diseases connected to Agent Orange.

Suddenly, in 2002, the VA changed the rules and declared that only those who had “boots on the ground” or served in the “Brown Water Navy” (those who patrolled close to shore) would get the special AO benefits.

Since last week my mailbox has seen a steady stream of correspondence from veterans, their families and concerned citizens who are devastated watching their friends spend their last days fighting the VA for benefits unfairly denied.

Bruce Tomlinson of Albuquerque quit school at 17 to join the Navy. He wrote to tell me that after his longstanding claim for AO benefits was denied he filed an appeal. Three years later he’s still waiting for an answer.

“When I ask my attorney every other month the status of her correspondence and/or my claim status with the VA, she tells me the same thing that I heard in boot camp, ‘Hurry up and just wait,’” Tomlinson said.

Virginia Compton expressed outrage in her correspondence with me: “My brother-in-law, Lt. Col. John B. King, was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War and was exposed to Agent Orange. It took him on Dec. 22, 2006. The Air Force refused to acknowledge the cause of death as being from Agent Orange. His death certificate states he died from complications from pneumonia. RIP ... .”

A fellow named Schlaff73 wrote to ask me: “Why do we send billions of dollars to countries (sic) who burn our flag, etc., but we turn our backs on the guys who risked their lives?”

I don’t have an answer to that question. But I’m sure things could change if Washington got a conscience.

Congress currently has two bills pending (H.R. 969 in the House of Representatives and S. 681 in the Senate) to re-establish the original intent of the 1991 act. But many believe that since it was Veterans Affairs that suspended the benefits in 2002, the current secretary of the VA, Bob McDonald, could unilaterally go back to the original coverage.

I recently watched a CBS 60 Minutes segment featuring “Secretary Bob,” as he likes to be called. His chin quivered and his voice caught when he was asked what he felt he owed veterans.

“This is very personal,” he said, “because I served with a lot of these guys.” As he struggled to keep composed he spoke of the enduring relationships he had made during his five years in the Army, where he rose to the rank of captain.

“Their life is relying on yours,” he said. “That’s the kind of relationships you create. That’s the kind of relationships that drive me to do this.”

Time to step up to the plate, Bob. I know you inherited the mess that is today’s VA, with its failed hospital and health-care system. But the U.S. military sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam, transporting it through bases on Guam, Okinawa and others — and it’s time for the VA to wake up and pay up.

End our collective guilt over how Vietnam era vets have been treated — once and for all.

Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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