Michael Kvintus, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran, can pinpoint the exact day he was exposed to Agent Orange, but he still can’t get disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
This week, he and thousands of others finally scored a breakthrough that is likely to get them those benefits.
Kvintus is part of a group called Blue Water Navy Veterans who notched a big victory with the unanimous passage of a bill in the House of Representatives that would restore their coverage for diseases tied to Agent Orange exposure. The VA ended the coverage in 2002 when it found insufficient evidence of exposure.
Kvintus was serving in the Navy aboard the USS Buchanan on Aug. 12, 1966, which was anchored in a harbor when nearby U.S. forces sprayed thousands of gallons of Agent Orange, a harmful herbicide linked to cancer and other long-term health effects.
At 50 years old, he had his first heart attack. Since then, he’s been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and undergone a quadruple bypass surgery. But the VA won’t give him benefits because he never set foot on Vietnam’s shores.
“They turned me down. They said I didn’t have boots on the ground,” said Kvintus, who lives in Cambridge, Ohio. “It’s just been a long-drawn hardship.”
For Kvintus, the bill could mean an end to the more than $150 per month he spends in co-pays, alongside his supplemental private insurance payments.
Some studies have shown it’s possible these veterans were exposed through their ships’ drinking water. A 2002 Australian study found that the distillation process used aboard American and Australian Navy ships could have enriched some harmful chemicals in the herbicide.
Sam Genco, a Vietnam Navy veteran who recently moved from Pine Knoll Shores, N.C., to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, thinks he could be among those affected.
Genco, who suffers from ischemic heart disease, said he’d given up on the passage of this bill, but now he says he’s optimistic that it’s finally gotten its chance.
“It would mean more security for my wife,” he said. “I’m not gonna be here all that much longer, but my wife’s younger than me and we’ve been married 39 years now.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said the evidence is indisputable.
“Despite undeniable evidence that Agent Orange entered the South China Sea and contaminated shipboard systems … the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny claims from the Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans,” he said.
The bill has faced some trouble in the past, but this time there’s an important difference — lawmakers figured out a way to pay for the coverage.
An attempt in November was quashed after Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., proposed funding it by rounding down the cost-of-living adjustment on veterans’ disability checks to the nearest dollar.
This bill, which is now headed to the Senate, will get its funding from a small increase in payments for non-disabled veterans who use the department’s home loan program — about $2 per month.
Amanda Maddox, spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he’d “prioritize” the legislation for committee consideration.
The bill’s passage was particularly gratifying to Blue Water Navy veterans and their families, such as Susie Belanger, a longtime advocate for the legislation. She had planned a family RV trip from Saratoga, N.Y., to Washington to visit tourist attractions and museums this week.
Coincidentally, the bill she’d fought for almost a decade was headed to the House floor, where Valadao would recognize her by name.
“Passage of this bill today would not be possible without Mrs. Susie Belanger, who worked tirelessly to raise awareness of this issue,” he said.
In 2002, when Belanger’s husband, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. The disease is among those linked to Agent Orange, a list that also includes prostate cancer and ischemic heart disease.
A friend told him he could apply to be on the Agent Orange registry to receive benefits through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, but he soon found out that veterans who served offshore were no longer eligible.
After he was able to prove he’d been onshore on a few occasions, he received the benefits. Still, Belanger felt something wasn’t right, especially since her husband thought his condition could have been caused by his ship’s drinking water. If he hadn’t gone on shore once or twice, he wouldn’t be covered at all, she realized.
So, she gathered veterans and their family members, and they started sending emails.
Next came meetings with members of Congress.
Soon after, a group called Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc. formed.
“None of us are professionals, none of us are lobbyists,” said John Wells, a former Navy commander turned lawyer. “We’re just some veterans trying to help other veterans.”
Belanger said time could be running short for Vietnam veterans, but she’s hoping to help other groups of veterans get VA assistance too.
“I just hope I’m not gonna be like 80 years old with a walker in DC saying, ‘We have a hundred guys left to help,’ ” she said.
© 2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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