HANNIBAL — Vietnam War veterans who served on ships during in waters near the island nation and were exposed to Agent Orange can now receive treatment and benefits, joining their fellow service men and women who were in Vietnam's rivers and had their boots on the ground.
Jess Ornelas, hall rental trustee at American Legion Post 55 (Emmette J. Shields), said the “Brown Water” act was passed about five years ago, and an act pertaining to veterans who were on the ground in Vietnam was passed beforehand. Two times each year, the American Legion and fellow veterans groups lobby in Washington, D.C. to help enact legislation to help veterans and their families. With President Trump's signature on June 25 to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, those regular efforts paid off — veterans who were on ships carrying the powerful pesticide can receive treatment and disability benefits when the law goes into effect Jan. 1.
“It took this long for some of these poor guys to get medicine,” Ornelas said. “It took a long time for the government to recognize [Agent Orange]. They were always denying it — 'no, it's just a pesticide that kills weeds, kills vegetation.'”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that between 420,000 and 560,000 veterans could now be eligible for treatment or benefits they were previously denied.
Agent Orange can cause a variety of serious health issues like chronic B-cell leukemias, Hodgkin lymphoma, eyesight loss, prostate cancer and respiratory cancers. The chemical aggressively killed all the vegetation it contacted.
Ornelas knew about veterans in St. Louis, Monroe City and Illinois who were very sick and committed suicide when they learned they were denied treatment for illnesses tied to exposure to Agent Orange.
One of Ornelas' friends was an over-the-road truck driver for years in Spokake, Wash. He began to lose his eyesight and developed diabetes and elephantiasis in his legs. Ornelas talked to many military personnel who had no protection or gas masks when the chemical was sprayed from helicopters and planes directly on their heads.
After the soldiers who were in the Vietnam jungles, the veterans in the “brown waters” of Vietnam's rivers and tributaries were recognized through legislation that they could file a claim for treatments or disability benefits. Veterans who served on the ships in the “blue waters” surrounding Vietnam and Cambodia were predominately serving in the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, along with fellow soldiers in the Army. Members of this group were the last Vietnam War veterans to be recognized to receive the treatment they need from Agent Orange exposure.
Ornelas said he is grateful that this group of Vietnam veterans can receive the medical help they need, but he stressed that it took many years before the act became a reality.
“They can get treatment now,” he said. “Before, they couldn't — because they were denied — the government and the VA didn't recognize the Blue Water veterans. It took this many years for these guys to get recognized and get medical help.”
Veterans can receive more information by contacting their Veterans Service Officer, calling the VA's toll-free number at 800-827-1000 or visiting the VA Blue Water Navy Agent Orange website at http://bit.ly/2lazzfD.