The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA or VA) has taken an unusually hostile stance against any veteran who served in the Vietnam War, whether in direct combat or in combat support, whose feet did not touch Vietnamese soil. They have ruled that any off-shore military personnel who have disabilities and diseases due to Agent Orange exposure are not eligible for the benefits that every other soldier, with the same symptoms, receives "automatically" due to their feet having touched the ground. This hostile attitude is easy to see in the briefs and testimonies related to the Haas v DVA court case. We have been able to identify several possible reasons for this, but to many it is still confusing. And to most, the reasons don't hold water.
The Vietnam Service Medal (VSM) was awarded to any member of the U.S. Armed Forces who served in direct combat or combat support of the war in Vietnam. The "official wording" describing this medal can be found here or at several other sites easy to find with Internet search engines. In part, this description reads as follows:
The Vietnam Service Medal was awarded to all members of the Armed Forces of the United States serving in Vietnam and contiguous waters or airspace thereover, after 3 July 1965 through 28 March 1973. Members of the Armed Forces of the United States in Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia, or the airspace thereover, during the same period and serving in direct support of operations in Vietnam are also eligible for this award.
The VA does not accept the VSM as proof of service on the mainland Vietnam (in-country) because it was, in fact, presented to personnel in direct combat support to the war efforts in Vietnam, but who were not located on the geographical landmass of Vietnam. Location on the landmass of Vietnam is an arbitrary VA requirement as to which veterans they acknowledge as "veterans of the Vietnam War" and which are categorized differently. At this time, the VA actually denies service-connected medical service and compensation to members of the U.S. Armed Forces who did not set their feet on the landmass of Vietnam. Additionally, they have labeled these veterans "non-Vietnam veterans" and "non-Vietnam War veterans."
To veterans of the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines who were engaged in combat from ships in the off-shore waters of Vietnam and those who were off-shore in the support of these ships, this denial of their participation in the Vietnam War is insulting, to say the least, in addition to being medically and monetarily devastating. They are being unlawfully denied their earned and desperately needed benefits. Personnel who served in the off-shore waters of Vietnam have become known as the Blue Water Navy. They may have been less than 100 yards off-shore, or traveled many miles up river or may have anchored in Vietnamese ports, but did not leave their ships. This sets them apart from members of the Brown Water Navy who were on smaller ships and boats in the inland waters and rivers of Vietnam and who regularly got out of their boats onto Vietnamese docks. The DVA has developed this double-standard policy as it relates to health care and disability compensation for exposure to the massive amounts of Agent Orange that were sprayed on the landmass of Vietnam from 1962 to 1975.
The recent court case of Jonathan Haas v DVA, which at the first of January, 2008, has not been decided by the panel of three federal court judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, has brought attention to this situation. A chronological summary of the issues of this case is located here .
Retired Navy Commander Haas challenged the decision of the VA to deny medical benefits and disability compensation to members of the Armed Forces who served in the Vietnam War in the off-shore waters of Vietnam. Those known as in-country veterans are cared for and compensated by the VA if they have certain diseases related to exposure to Agent Orange. This is because the VA has proclaimed that certain diseases were caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Personnel who served in the off-shore waters and who have those same diseases are told by the VA that they are not eligible for the same benefits given to in-country veterans.
There is a condition of "presumptive exposure" by which the in-country veterans can receive their benefits for disabilities caused by Agent Orange. They don't need to prove they were exposed to Agent Orange; they merely have to prove they set their foot on the landmass of Vietnam during the stated time frame, and they are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and it is presumed that Agent Orange is the cause all the diseases on the approved list kept by the VA. This is not so for the off-shore veterans.
Those who did not have "boots on the ground" contend that the position taken by the VA is wrong in several ways:
The VA has been carefully building up this idea that absence from the landmass of Vietnam revokes the combat status of a veteran, and re-defines their illnesses as non-service-connected and non-eligible for presumptive exposure to Agent Orange. Make no mistake about it: all statements of VA policy have been very carefully edited and reviewed by top level VA lawyers and executives before they are ever sent out the door for public consumption.
On November 4, 2004, the VA's Director of Environmental Agents Service presented a formal paper to a symposium for judges in the Science for Judges program at the Brooklyn Law School. The title of that paper is The Role of Science in Department of Veterans Affairs Disability Compensation Policies for Environmental and Occupational Illnesses and Injuries. It appears in Vol. XIII no. 2 Journal of Law & Policy (2005).
What is remarkable in this presentation is that this derision of the US Navy occurs in the same sentence wherein Brown, speaking on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs, openly admits that there is "...no scientific or public health basis for excluding these non-Vietnam War veterans from the presumptive service connection offered to Vietnam veterans" and in the same paragraph that states the supposed "non-Vietnam veterans" actually were exposed to herbicides and dioxins.
Mr. Brown additionally makes the fatal error of supporting the VA illusion that the National Academy of Science (NAS) has been providing them, through the work of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), "an exhaustive and thorough review of all published literature on health effects from exposure to ..." Agent Orange. A relatively cursory review of the medical literature from 1993 onward shows clearly that the IOM has barely touched the surface of such literature, such as is presented by the 2004 Pesticide Literature Review (see the 18 Dec 07 entry for the 2004 Pesticide Literature Review ) as well as the later releases from Australia and New Zealand research studies and documentation ( here ) connecting fresh water distillation of sea water and pesticide exposure of off-shore naval personnel.
Mr. Brown erroneously notes that the National Academy of Science (NAS) has been successful in the process of "incorporating science into difficult and contentious veteran compensation policy decisions." I believe it has been clearly pointed out how very far from truth this statement is. (See Part I and Part II ). In fact, it is Brown himself that states there is no scientific basis for the very important underlying foundation to "presumptive exposure" and the exclusion of off-shore military personnel from that presumption. Generally and overall, the NAS has been blind to and evasive of viable, formal research that supports medical and scientific studies of off-shore personnel that prove their disabilities, which look exactly like those disabilities of in-country vets, are far more likely than not to have been caused by the same dioxin poisoning as the in-country veterans experience.
It appears that those specific elements which the VA requests from the NAS and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which eliminate legitimate medical research supporting the claims of off-shore personnel, is exactly what is delivered to the VA in the bi-annual updates to the Agent Orange Review. In a word, NAS/IOM have utterly and completely failed their mission as originally given them by the Agent Orange Act of 1991. Additionally, the VA seems to have control over what medical and scientific information appears in their reports, and they continuously delete existing evidence that would prove them wrong. Given the admissions of Mr. Brown, the VA has been caught up in a two-faced lie.
Mr. Brown is forthright enough to admit that the military use of the compound known as Agent Orange (which never did appear on any commercial chemical shelf due to its very unique and DoD-dictated concoction of a 50-50% mixture by volume of the undiluted n-butyl esters of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T) on various stateside military bases, as well as global installations, from the 1950s to the 1970s very probably exposed "everyone living during that period" to the dangers of dioxin. The true impact of that statement apparently has not quite yet sunk in. This is an admission by the DVA that the US Military may have carried out the most massive national, if not global, poisoning in the history of the world. It is not true, as Brown contends, that "Many domestic civilian workers used these same chemical agents" unless one also addresses the issue of chemical mixtures and how they might differ from one another but be conceptually linked by the uninformed. Agent Orange, as ordered by the DoD and used in Vietnam and elsewhere, always by military release, contained elements that showed up in other, commercial variants as weed killer, etc. But Agent Orange as the discrete chemical compound defined above, was never a commercial product. By about 1980, most all of the individual components of Agent Orange were outlawed, no matter how they appeared in mixture. (See Winter v Diamand Shamrock ). But the magnitude of that bit of U.S. arrogance requires in-depth research beyond the confines of this report.