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Blue water navy bill moves forward, advocates dispute House definitions

Agent Orange Barrels at Johnston Atoll around circa 1976. (U.S. Department of Defense/Released)
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Earlier this month, the House passed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, H.R. 299, to make it easier for Navy veterans to obtain benefits after being exposed to Agent Orange. Now advocates for the bill are throwing their support behind a Senate version introduced by Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand — and rejecting the House version of the bill.

“The language on the Senate bill is different from the House bill,” said Susie Belanger, a resident of Gansevoort.

Mrs. Belanger’s husband Ernie was part of the blue water Navy during Vietnam, and she works with both the Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc. and Blue Water Navy Association, which have been major supporters of the bill. Over the last 20 years, she has been working on this issue; she has worked with both U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, and Sen. Gillibrand on legislation.

In January, advocates won a major victory when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in Procopio v. Wilkie that Navy veterans who served within the 12 nautical miles of territorial seas in Vietnam are entitled to a presumption that they were exposed to Agent Orange.

The ruling in Procopio used a broad definition of which naval service members would be included. According to testimony from John B. Wells, executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy, the House bill now contains a more restrictive definition of what counts as territorial waters than what was included in the Procopio decision, including a list of what Mr. Wells argues are now unnecessary geographic markers.

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Both the Military-Veterans Advocacy and Blue Water Navy Association withdrew support on April 26 over this. But the Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Gillibrand on April 11, does not include the geographic definition and still has their support.

“Senator Gillibrand is thankful that the bipartisan Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act unanimously passed the House yet again,” wrote Gillibrand spokeswoman Johanna Kichton to the Times. “She is urging the Senate to follow suit and pass this legislation quickly so that our Blue Water vets can finally be guaranteed the benefits they have earned and deserve. This legislation has strong support from both Democrats and Republicans, and there is no reason it shouldn’t be put on the floor for a vote immediately.”

More than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange, an herbicide, were sprayed to remove jungle foliage during the Vietnam conflict. Exposure to the chemical has resulted in health issues such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, various cancers, Type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

Garry Parrigan served from 1971 to 1975, including off the coast of Vietnam on the USS Savannah, a supply ship. In four years, he said he visited 16 countries, including transporting barrels of Agent Orange,

Now, Mr. Parrigan said, he has a range of health issues, including diabetes, nodes and scarring on his lungs and heart troubles — including a diagnosis earlier this week of congestive heart failure.

“My medical record was over 900 pages long,” he said.

According to Gillibrand’s office, in 1991 Congress passed a law requiring the Department of Veteran Affairs to provide presumptive coverage to all Vietnam veterans who had diseases linked to Agent Orange. In 2002, the VA decided to exclude Blue Water veterans.

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This meant that when Mr. Parrigan applied for benefits related to Agent Orange exposure, he was denied.

“You had to have boots on the ground, and we didn’t,” he said.

Mr. Parrigan is now a resident of Ohio, but is very supportive of Sen. Gillibrand.

“She has been more open and direct than anyone,” he said. “She knows it’s the right thing to do.”

The current Senate bill has 55 cosponsors, and seems poised to pass.

“If it gets to the Senate side, we have plenty of support there,” Mrs. Belanger said.

If the Senate passes a different version of the bill from the House, the bill will have to be conferenced between the two chambers and go back to each for final approval. Even if it is passed, it may act as little more than re-enforcement for the Procopio decision.

Mrs. Belanger, though, thinks that this is important for the future — especially for veterans returning from exposure to burn pits and depleted uranium in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The other reason we are fighting so hard for this, I don’t want our younger warriors … to be in our position” in another few decades, she said.

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© 2019 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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