U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced a bill amending the Agent Orange Act to include Navy veterans of Vietnam who served on board ships but not on land.
Gillibrand, a Democrat from the Albany area, introduced the bill, the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2011, with a Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
The bill would broaden the group of veterans eligible for compensation payments for diseases arising from exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by U.S. forces to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. Agent Orange contained dioxin, a poisonous chemical that can cause a host of human health problems.
The bill would allow sailors who served in "the territorial seas" of Vietnam to apply for compensation. Previously, the so-called "blue water Navy veterans" - sailors who could not show they spent time on land in Vietnam or on its intercoastal waterways - were excluded, even if they were suffering from diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure.
Other Vietnam veterans who did serve on land or on ships that ventured up the country's rivers had only to show they were suffering from certain ailments linked to dioxin exposure, such as Type 2 diabetes, to qualify for government compensation.
The original Agent Orange Act of 1991 covered all veterans of Vietnam, including those from the Navy and Air Force. But, in 2002, the government reinterpreted the phrase "served in the Republic of Vietnam" as limiting eligibility to soldiers who had set foot on the ground there.
Charles Cooley of Fort Edward, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes, was granted benefits under the act's original interpretation, but, last year, had them taken away under the new reading.
This June, officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs became aware of Cooley's circumstances through a series of stories that ran in The Post-Star. They reconsidered his case, admitted the agency's staff had made mistakes, and reinstated monthly benefits at a higher level than he had been receiving before his payments were stopped.
The agency also awarded Cooley and his wife, Dolores, a lump sum to make up for missed payments and payments that were lower than they should have been.
Since then, the Cooleys have been able to save money and put a new deck on their doublewide trailer in Tori Trace, where, on warm and windless days, Mr. Cooley can sit and enjoy the sun.
They've been able to put wood floors in their home, which accumulate less dust. Mr. Cooley suffers from respiratory ailments and uses an oxygen tank at all times.
"He's got his good days and bad days," Mrs. Cooley said Tuesday, of her husband. "He was in the hospital for pneumonia and congestive heart failure again, end of July."
Activists working on behalf of blue water veterans have much work left to get the new proposal passed into law.
Susan Belanger of Wilton, special projects director of a national advocacy group, Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, said she will be heading to Washington, D.C., at the end of October to lobby for the bill.
"We've worked so hard to get it," she said. "With the financial climate, we're darn lucky to get this."
Belanger will be visiting congressional offices with John Wells, a Louisiana lawyer and a retired Navy commander who spends much of his time advocating for veterans.
Wells is an expert on the process Navy ships used to gather potable water, in which sea water was scooped up and distilled. A May report from the Institute of Medicine found the distilling process would have strengthened the potency of any contaminants, such as dioxin, present in the sea water.
Navy ships cruising the Vietnamese coast could have been scooping up sea water contaminated by dioxin-laced runoff and, through the distilling process, making it more hazardous to the health of the sailors onboard, Wells has pointed out.
On aircraft carriers stationed farther from land, the water supply could have been contaminated when planes that had flown through clouds of Agent Orange were cleaned on deck. The wash water would run into the sea, where it would be sucked up again and distilled, said John Rossie, executive director of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association.
Trying one angle after another, the advocates have been able to wrest benefits out of the federal government case by case.
"It's a trickle-in. We do it any way we can, even if we have to get these guys in one at a time," Rossie said.
But it's slow, and Vietnam veterans are dying off, he said.
"It's going to be really tough, unless they pass legislation, to get anybody else in," he said.