RICK MAZE, NAVY TIMES, SETPEMBER 6, 2006
By Rick Maze
Navy Vietnam War veterans who never set foot on Vietnamese soil are being encouraged by a key member of Congress and a veterans’ legal group to file disability claims if suffering any symptoms of diseases that might be related to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
The advice from Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois, a Vietnam-era veteran and ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and from the National Veterans Legal Services Program comes as a result of an Aug. 16 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims that rules veterans of the so-called “blue water” fleet may be eligible for benefits just like ground-based troops.
The number of people potentially affected is not clear, Evans’ aides said.
The decision came in the case of a retired Navy Reserve officer, Cmdr. Jonathan L. Haas, who claimed his diabetes mellitus and related complications were due to exposure to the herbicide used onshore. If Haas had ever stepped foot on Vietnamese soil, the VA would have automatically presumed his disability was Agent Orange-related and approved disabled pay.
The court held the distinction between brown water and blue water and those on shore or afloat did not make sense with an airborne agent.
Evans recommends veterans who received the Vietnam Service Medal and served in the Vietnamese territorial waters file a claim if they have disabilities the VA already presumes to be associated with exposure to Agent Orange. The list, which is included in law, includes chloracne, Type II diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, multiple myeloma, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers and soft-tissue sarcomas.
It is not just veterans who qualify, Evans said. Survivors of veterans who died from Agent Orange disabilities may be eligible dependency and indemnity compensation, the VA payment for survivor when veterans die of service-related causes.
Attorneys at the legal services program who represented Haas said that since 2002, the VA had limited the Agent Orange disability presumption to people who could prove they were on Vietnamese soil, which is hard for Navy and Air Force veterans who may have landed or stepped ashore but cannot provide evidence because of incomplete or missing military records.
The group says the VA may appeal the decision but in the meantime it recommends “quick action” while the decision is binding.
For new claims, a veteran should have received the Vietnam Service Medal or its predecessor, the Army Force Expeditionary Medal-Vietnam, for service offshore from Jan. 9, 1962 until May 7, 1975, and the service must not just be an overflight. There are ways to receive benefits without the medals but it is more difficult, the group said in written advice to veterans’ advocates.
The advice recommends filing a claim for immediate benefits, and not to complicate with requests for retroactive payments until benefits are granted, when a modification can be requested.
“I want to make veterans and military families aware of their potential eligibility for service-connected compensation as the result of this court decision. It is important for veterans and survivors to apply for benefits now, so that their eligibility can be evaluated under the court ruling,” said Evans in a statement.
“Under earlier VA Agent Orange regulations, which were later invalidated, some veterans lost benefits because they never applied for them. I do not want to see that happen again,” Evans said.