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As we celebrate veterans, don’t forget the residual consequences of war

Photo of flags at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., May 17, 2013. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley/TNS)
November 05, 2019

Next week, millions of Americans will celebrate Veterans Day—a moment for us to recognize the sacrifices made by all those who have served our country. It is an especially powerful moment for the 18 million veterans still alive today, as they look back on their service and its profound impact on their lives, and those closest to them.

Unfortunately, many of our surviving veterans struggle to live their lives to the fullest because of war’s harsh consequences—if they even live at all. Because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other residual repercussions, the veteran suicide rate is significantly higher than that of the general population. According to the most recent data, more than 6,000 veterans commit suicide on an annual basis. This comes out to an average of 17 veteran deaths by suicide per day.

But, however terrible, even that’s not the end of the story. A veteran’s daily life is littered with countless obstacles, which are often ignored by the mainstream media yet continue to wreak havoc on entire communities.

Perhaps the most significant one is toxic chemical exposure. Any U.S. veteran who fought in the Vietnam War, which amounts to nearly three million service members, is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. This includes the roughly 850,000 living Vietnam veterans who are forced to cope with the ramifications of Agent Orange in their daily lives.

Agent Orange is a herbicide linked to a wide range of debilitating conditions, such as multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, and others. The U.S. military used the toxic chemical from 1962 and 1975, spraying millions of gallons over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

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However, Agent Orange’s lethal legacy extends far beyond Southeast Asia. In Guam, where one in eight adults served in the Armed Forces, our military’s use of the herbicide has affected thousands of veterans stationed on the Pacific Island. They, and the thousands more who served on the island and now live elsewhere, are dealing with the consequences of Agent Orange on a daily basis. That’s right: It is a daily struggle.

As we celebrate our veterans, we must collectively do more on their behalf, so that they can live their lives to the fullest and not struggle to get by. That begins with the federal government, which has not always been on the side of our nation’s heroes.

Even as volunteer veterans continue to draw attention to the thousands and thousands of Agent Orange-affected veterans, many of those veterans were left to fend for themselves by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). While the Agent Orange Act of 1991 extended benefits to all veterans who served in Vietnam, including those on Navy ships within its territorial area, VA bureaucrats ruled erroneously that only those who served on land and in Vietnam’s inland waterways were covered.

This erroneous ruling prevented thousands of veterans from receiving the medical care that they—and their families—desperately need. Our heroes were denied what they, of all people, deserve most. And they were denied it by their government. Fortunately, the ruling was overturned in a case brought by Military Veterans Advocacy, Procopio v. Wilkie, which extended benefits to those who served in the territorial sea.

In the wake of Procopio, elected officials took steps to codify the decision. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed into law the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, confirming disability benefits for Agent Orange-affected veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam—known as “Blue Water” Navy veterans.

But the new law remains flawed, allowing the VA to again place a stay on “Blue Water” Navy veterans’ claims . Those claims are being held up right now: No matter how meritorious, the VA is refusing to review and adjudicate them.

This is simply unacceptable. Our veterans are fighting for their lives without the proper benefits for them and their families.

That’s why we are going to Washington, D.C. to fight the VA’s obstruction in court. This Friday, Military Veterans Advocacy will appear before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, pleading our veterans’ case to force the VA to lift the stay. Federal bureaucrats need to know that, when such benefits are threatened, it will not go unanswered.

The longer we wait, the more American lives are threatened by inaction. As a retired Air Force colonel myself, I urge all Americans to keep up the fight—this Veterans Day and beyond.

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Rob Maness serves as executive director of Military Veterans Advocacy. He is a former U.S. Senate candidate and retired Air Force colonel.

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an Op-Ed, please email [email protected]