Congressman Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, has introduced a bill to extend benefits for ailments associated with Agent Orange exposure suffered by "blue water veterans" who served in Vietnam aboard Navy ships but did not set foot on land.
The bill, H.R. 3612, is a companion to similar legislation introduced in the Senate earlier this year by U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Gibson was joined in pushing the bill by two Democrats, Lloyd Doggett of Texas and Tim Walz of Minnesota, and a fellow Republican, Denny Rehberg, of Montana. The bipartisan nature of the effort has been emphasized by Gibson, Gillibrand and longtime advocates for blue water Navy veterans such as Susan Belanger, of Wilton.
"Not only do we have bipartisan support, but we have Senator Gillibrand's staff and Congressman Gibson's staff reaching across the aisle supporting each other," said Belanger, who is special projects director for a national organization, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association.
Belanger was recently lobbying for the bill in Washington, D.C., where she met with Gibson.
"We have to find a way to reach common ground and get the people's business done," Gibson said. "I'm optimistic at this point. I think we have a smart bill that does what needs to be done for our veterans."
The bill would move the position of the U.S. government back toward what it was in 1991, when the original Agent Orange legislation was passed. That law extended benefits to all veterans who had served in Vietnam and were suffering from diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, that have been linked to Agent Orange exposure.
In 2002, the government narrowed the law's coverage by interpreting the phrase "served in the Republic of Vietnam" to mean only those soldiers who set foot on the ground in Vietnam.
Later, the interpretation was broadened to include veterans who sailed on the country's inland waterways, but it still excluded those who sailed on the seas around Vietnam.
A local Vietnam veteran, Charles Cooley, of Fort Edward, qualified under the act's original language for Agent Orange benefits for his diabetes and other ailments. But his benefits were taken away last year after he applied for an increase, as the Department of Veterans Affairs ruled he should be excluded because he never served in-country.
A series of stories published in June in The Post-Star explored the circumstances of Cooley and his wife, who were running out of money and faced the loss of their home. Those stories came to the attention of Veterans Affairs officials in New York who reviewed Cooley's case and restored his benefits at a higher level.
Advocates for blue water veterans say they have managed to help individual veterans get benefits, but thousands are going without, and each year, many of them die.
Gibson said about 33,000 blue water veterans have been denied coverage.
"We're talking about a responsibility I think our country has, and we can do it without breaking the bank," he said.
John Wells, a lawyer and retired Navy commander who works on behalf of Vietnam veterans, expressed hope that, with the legislation finding bipartisan support in the Senate and House, a bill will get passed.
"It is our fervent hope and prayer that the 112th Congress will finally bring relief to the members of the sea services who fought so bravely off the coast of Vietnam," he said.
Agent Orange was a herbicide that contained dioxin, which can cause numerous health problems to humans. It was used to defoliate jungles in Vietnam.