Congressman Antonio Delgado threw his support behind two bills seeking to benefit veterans earlier this month, some of the first legislation he sponsored since taking office at the beginning of the year.
The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act seeks to extend healthcare, disability and death benefits to Navy personnel sickened by exposure to Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used to deny enemy forces vegetative cover during the war.
The second bill, the Service-Disabled Veterans Small Business Continuation Act, would extend the preferential treatment the surviving spouses of disabled veterans get with government contracts to the surviving spouses of vets with less severe disabilities.
The push to pass the Blue Water Navy Act was helmed by Republican Chris Gibson, who served as the northern Hudson Valley’s representative in Congress before declining to seek re-election because of a self-imposed term limit. He was followed in office by Republican John Faso, Delgado’s predecessor in the 19th District.
Delgado noted the importance of the two bills, and how it signaled he was ready to work with both parties on issues, as the bills have bi-partisan support.
“It’s a great opportunity to advance an issue that I certainly want to be able to advance – any chance I get to help veterans and make sure that we provide opportunities and extent benefits for [their] benefit …I certainly want to do that, and the fact that it’s a bi-partisan opportunity as well is all the better,” he said.
“Democracies function best when people find common ground,” Delgado said, “and I think it’s imperative that as a new member I intentionally go about finding these opportunities to make it clear to my constituents and the folks here in DC…that I want to work across the aisle.”
One of the first advisory groups Delgado formed was his Veteran’s Advisory Board, “a good majority of whom served on Faso’s advisory board,” he added.
Agent Orange & The Blue Water Veterans
Veterans and their political allies have been pushing to cover Vietnam Navy vets for exposure to Agent Orange since 2002, when President George W. Bush’s administration changed the requirements, denying benefits to veterans who served offshore.
The defoliant Agent Orange was used widely during the Vietnam War to deny Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops the thick cover of Southeast Asian rainforest from which they attacked.
In 1970, scientific studies found Agent Orange could cause birth defects in lab rats, and the use of the chemical stopped the next year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Vietnam Veterans were covered for certain cancers and other diseases associated with Agent Orange under the Agent Orange Act of 1991 – passed almost 20 years after the first soldiers were exposed. The act presumes a number of cancers and other ailments were caused by Agent Orange if they appear in a Vietnam Veteran, and extended heath, disability and death benefits to these soldiers.
However, in February 2002, under the direction of the George W. Bush administration, the VA barred military personnel from being granted these benefits if they served off-shore and could not prove they had “boots on ground,” arguing these troops were never exposed.
Former Congressman and Iraq combat veteran Chris Gibson, who is currently the Stanley Kaplan Distinguished Visiting Professor of American Foreign Policy at Williams College in Massachusetts, argued military personnel who served offshore were also exposed to dangerous levels of Agent Orange.
“I’m not moved by the critics who say the science isn’t there,” he said. “I believe the science is there.”
U.S. sailors serving offshore were constantly resupplying ground troops and came under enemy fire off the coast, Gibson said, leading the military to defoliate areas around ports to protect the shipments.
“Imagine, if you will, a Navy ship coming in to resupply at any one of these coastal ports…ships could be [there] for anywhere up to a couple days, and sometimes longer, as they’re going through the offloading of all the logistics, and now you have a prevailing wind that’s blowing back to the sea…these sailors were clearly exposed,” he said.
Sailors were also exposed to Agent Orange through their drinking water, which was pumped into ships from the seas around Vietnam, then purified through a process that unknowingly made the chemical more potent, Gibson said.
A 2002 Australian study found the process, also used by the Australian Royal Navy during the war, could have enriched some of the harmful chemicals in the defoliant.
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has been reviewing scientific literature on Agent Orange since the 1990s on the behalf of the VA. It’s last report, released in 2016, is inconclusive on the issue, stating it “was unable to state with certainty that Blue Water Navy personnel were or were not exposed to Agent Orange.”
The Struggle for “A Justice Issue”
In 2016, a bill Gibson authored extending benefits to Blue Water Vets was passed in the House of Representatives, then stalled in the Senate because of a contemporaneous rule requiring any new spending to be matched by cuts.
Last year, a bill extending benefits passed the House unanimously, then was brought to the floor of the Senate by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand under “unanimous consent,” which fast-tracks a bill into law, but can be stopped by a single senator objecting.
That senator was Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming, who cited the bill’s cost and “operational pressures that would happen at the VA,” according to Stars and Stripes.
Carol Olszanecki, a Hudson Valley advocate for Blue Water Vets, put it bluntly.
“He did it because of the money,” she said.
Olszanecki’s husband served in the Navy during Vietnam. He was diagnosed in 1979 with Type 2 Diabetes, leading to heart disease and a triple-bypass, Olszanecki said. His leg was amputated in 2001 because of the disorder.
Type 2 Diabetes was not recognized as being caused by Agent Orange until 2001, at which point Olszanecki filed a claim with the VA, she said. Her husband passed away in June 2002, a few months after the VA started denying Blue Water Vets benefits, and her struggles trying to receive her husband’s death benefits led her to co-found the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association.
The VA believes the science linking Blue Water Vets’ disorders to Agent Orange is not there, and other opponents have balked at the price tag.
The latest incarnation of the Blue Water Vets bill – the one torpedoed by Mike Enzi – would cost taxpayers almost $900 million over five years, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, which calculates the costs of new bills.
Olszanecki said this was a poor excuse.
“As far as it costing too much money, how do you put a price tag on somebody’s life?” she asked. “Number two, we spend more money helping others, helping countries that hate us, versus helping our own, and I think care begins at home.”
Olszanecki thanked several politicians from both parties who helped her cause – Chris Gibson on the Republican side, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Congressman Maurice Hinchey on the Democratic side – making the bi-partisan nature of the bill clear.
“I do have hope that this’ll be the year,” Olszanecki said of the bill “If not, we will just continue doing this.”
However, there is another route.
Since the VA started denying benefits because of an order by the George W. Bush administration and not a piece of legislation, any president could switch the policy back, Gibson said.
“All the legislative efforts, which have been herculean and important and justice-supported…they could’ve stopped tomorrow had the President of the United State of America, whether it be Obama or Trump, rescinded that executive order,” he said. “It would’ve reverted back to the original language, and this would’ve been taken care of – so this is not a partisan thing, this is really just a justice issue.”
Afterword: Military Experiences
Carol Olszanecki asked me during our interview whether I’d ever served in the military…