‘Blue water’ Navy veterans’ long waits often end in denials at VA

About 200 biodegradable orange balloons are lifted by the breeze in honor and recognition of those who served in Vietnam and were affected by Agent Orange during fifth annual Memorial Day ceremony at the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth, Fla., May 28, 2012.
About 200 biodegradable orange balloons are lifted by the breeze in honor and recognition of those who served in Vietnam and were affected by Agent Orange during fifth annual Memorial Day ceremony at the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth, Fla., May 28, 2012. MCT

Bob Bauman is waiting.

Bauman, of Baltimore, remembers the orange-striped barrels sitting on a pier off Subic Bay in the Philippines. He’s convinced that they were filled with Agent Orange that leaked into the water where he and his fellow sailors went swimming.

Now 65, Bauman has diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, colorectal cancer and essential tremor. He blames the orange-striped barrels, but he hasn’t received disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA grants benefits only to Agent Orange-exposed veterans who served on the ground or in the rivers of Vietnam. Bauman and his fellow sailors – known as blue water Navy veterans – served off the coast of Vietnam and aren’t covered.

The fight between veterans such as Bauman and the VA has resulted in a cycle of denied claims and a lack of benefits for the majority of blue water veterans that can stretch several years, advocates say. Legislation to extend compensation to these veterans was introduced in the House of Representatives in February, but getting it through will be difficult: Five previous attempts to secure benefits have been unsuccessful.

“Fixing the VA is going to take more than this bill,” said John Wells, the director of legal and legislative affairs for the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association. “Until the VA is purged of its bureaucratic resistance to facts, nothing’s going to get any better.”

Bauman receives some care from a VA medical center, but he’s counting on Agent Orange disability benefits to pay for his medications. His claims for benefits were denied twice because he didn’t have “boots on the ground,” meaning he didn’t step onto land or in inland rivers.

He then took his case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which he won this past summer. Now the Board of Veterans’ Appeals is looking for proof that Bauman was directly exposed to Agent Orange during the war. If he eventually receives benefits, he said, that might set a precedent for other blue water veterans.

“It’s a bit frustrating, but at least it’s still going,” Bauman said. “I’m still fighting for it.”

Agent Orange contained the toxic chemical commonly known as dioxin, which has had harmful health effects on Vietnam veterans for decades. The World Health Organization said short-term exposure to dioxin could lead to skin lesions and long-term exposure could cause damage to the nervous, endocrine, immune and reproductive systems.

Blue water veterans were compensated under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, but in 2002 the VA started limiting coverage to those who’d served on land and inland waters after the agency’s general counsel recommended that it do so. The Agent Orange Equity Act to extend compensation was introduced yearly from 2008 to 2010 and twice in 2011, but it died in committee all five times.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association estimates that if the bill eventually does pass, about 50,000 to 60,000 blue water veterans will apply for benefits, said John Rossie, the association’s executive director. He said he was confident that funding for the legislation wouldn’t exceed $2 billion over 10 years.

The lack of official details of each veteran’s activity during the war makes formulating a concrete number of blue water Navy veterans impossible, especially when narrowing data to a very specific group of Navy veterans. Rossie estimates that about 100,000 or fewer veterans served in the blue water Navy.

“There was no one particular place that was required to keep track of it all,” Rossie said.

VA spokesman Randy Noller said he couldn’t comment on pending legislation and had no way of estimating projected costs and participants. The agency hasn’t responded to McClatchy’s request for comment on cases of specific veterans’ claim denials.

Under VA policy, the department grants “presumption” in Agent Orange cases, meaning that it assumes veterans who served on land or in Vietnam’s inland waters were exposed to the chemical.

However, it lacks evidence that Agent Orange could have harmed the blue water veterans, who were at least a few miles offshore, said Jim Sampsel, an official in the VA disability division.

Several studies, including a 2011 report from the independent, nonprofit Institute of Medicine, have been unable to confirm that blue water Navy veterans were exposed.

The institute, which is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that Agent Orange was sprayed at low altitudes when the wind was blowing toward the shore to minimize contamination; any runoff would have been extremely diluted, Sampsel said. During the Vietnam War, the Navy refrained from using water for drinking or showering unless at least 10 miles offshore, Sampsel said.

Sampsel noted that Agent Orange isn’t always the cause of a Vietnam Veteran’s diabetes or cancer. Millions who didn’t serve in Vietnam also contract these diseases, especially as they age.

“There’s no evidence that it got anywhere offshore in any significant way,” Sampsel said.

There are 14 diseases that the VA assumes were caused by Agent Orange exposure, including Type 2 diabetes and prostate cancer. In 2008, the Institute of Medicine recommended that three diseases be added to the list, which the VA did: ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and leukemia. The VA has paid nearly $4.3 billion to veterans who’d previously been denied benefits for those diseases or to their survivors, according to Sampsel.

Rossie said that most blue water veterans he knew had received at least some VA benefits for other illnesses, even if they hadn’t yet received Agent Orange compensation. Blue water veterans have their claims evaluated on a case-by-case basis and must prove that they were contaminated by Agent Orange, a process that can take years.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2013, which went to committee in the House on Feb. 6, would extend coverage by 12 miles to include those who served off the coast of Vietnam, Wells said.

Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., sponsored the bill, which has bipartisan support from 81 co-sponsors as of March 19. Gibson, who’s an Army veteran, said he was optimistic that the bill would pass this time.

Lloyd Granaas, a blue water veteran who lives in Marion County, Fla., had sent in claims for diabetes, heart disease and neuropathy, but he didn’t receive compensation until he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year. For that, he received 100 percent disability, as the VA assumes that exposure to Agent Orange caused this type of cancer regardless of where the veteran served.

He said the VA’s logic of contamination frustrated him. Granaas, who’s now 71, sometimes was so close to shore that he could watch as a sailor on his ship walked onto land. That sailor would receive benefits. But as long as Granaas was on the ship, he wouldn’t receive benefits.

“I never knew Agent Orange was selective,” he said.