The Vietnam War may be a historical footnote for many Americans, but its consequences continue to be felt around the world. Recent reports from Vietnam found that Vietnamese infants are still being born with birth defects linked to Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used by the U.S. military to weed out Viet Cong fighters.
However, the people of Vietnam are not alone in their suffering. Any U.S. veteran who served in Vietnam, which amounts to nearly 3 million service members, is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. This includes the roughly 850,000 living Vietnam War veterans who are forced to cope with the ramifications of Agent Orange in their daily lives. The herbicide is linked to multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and other maladies that expose countless veterans to premature death.
These public servants deserve our utmost attention — now and always. Fortunately, volunteer veterans have picked up the battle flag of drawing attention to the 93,000 Agent Orange-affected veterans who were placed out in the cold by the arbitrary, capricious actions of the bureaucrats at the Department of Veterans Affairs. While the Agent Orange Act of 1991 extended benefits to all veterans who served in Vietnam, including those on Navy ships within its territorial area, VA bureaucrats ruled erroneously that only those who served on land and in Vietnam’s inland waterways were covered.
Volunteer veterans, organized as the nonprofit Military Veterans Advocacy, fought for a decade to force the VA to make all Vietnam veterans eligible through legislation and the courts. And we are making real progress: Earlier this summer, President Donald Trump signed into law the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, confirming disability benefits for Agent Orange-affected veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam — known as “Blue Water” Navy veterans.
While a step in the right direction, our mission is far from finished. The new law remains flawed, allowing the VA to stay “Blue Water” Navy veterans’ claims once again. These veterans are dying daily, fighting for their lives without benefits for them and their families. On behalf of them, Trump must direct the VA to drop the stay immediately and secure those benefits now — before more veterans lose their lives.
Trump should also turn his attention to the Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Relief Act, which provides disability benefits to Guam veterans who were exposed to toxic herbicides while serving in the Armed Forces. One in eight adults on the Pacific island have served in the Armed Forces. They, and the thousands of American veterans who served on the island when toxic herbicide was sprayed in the 1960s and 1970s, deserve to be cared for long after they leave military service.
Our veterans also deserve comprehensive research on the toxic exposure that threatens their livelihood and their families’. That’s why Military Veterans Advocacy is working with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) to draft legislation that establishes a Comprehensive Toxic Exposure Research Center, due to the chemicals used in foreign wars and on all military bases.
The center would monitor veterans’ (and their families’) health data streams from entry into the military through discharge, and until their deaths. Using that data, it would analyze disease clusters that it identifies, trigger immediate investigations, and pursue innovative treatments of the medical conditions associated with those diseases.
This is the Australian model, used by their equivalent of the VA. In 2002, Australia’s National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology and the Queensland Health Scientific Services determined that U.S. “Blue Water” Navy sailors were 22 percent more affected by conditions related to Agent Orange exposure than the non-military population and even the ground troops in the heart of Agent Orange hot zones. Two separate U.S. Institute of Medicine studies confirmed our ally’s findings.
Following in Australia’s footsteps, I urge Trump — with the support of Congress — to create a task force that can identify, define and establish the requirements of a Comprehensive Toxic Exposure Research Center for veterans and their families. Of course, the task force would need to include the Office of the Secretary of Defense, veteran service organizations and representatives from each branch of service.
There will be a cost. We estimate that the center would cost approximately $25 billion over 10 years to fully fund operations, including a standing fund dedicated to providing benefits to veterans and their families who are identified as “exposed” by the center.
But it is a price worth paying. As a nation, we simply cannot continue to piecemeal our approach to toxic exposures that adversely affect thousands of American heroes.
Time is of the essence. The longer we wait, the more American lives are threatened by our inaction. With the political will to get it done, a Comprehensive Toxic Exposure Research Center will save countless lives and restore the military community’s trust in the American system.
Rob Maness serves as executive director of Military Veterans Advocacy and is a former U.S. Senate candidate and retired Air Force colonel.
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