October 25, 2009
By Brian Tumulty
WASHINGTON — When Wayne Rademaker underwent prostate cancer surgery in 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied him coverage, even though he’d been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam in 1969.
The water that the 60-year-old Oakfield, N.Y., resident drank and showered with aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany in the Tonkin Gulf contained traces of the toxic defoliant.
But to save money, the VA years ago stopped covering Vietnam veterans who didn’t serve on the ground.
“They changed the wording, saying if you didn’t have feet on the ground, you weren’t part of the war,” Rademaker said.
Until that policy shift, Rademaker had received a free annual VA physical to check for service-related illnesses.
Some New York lawmakers want to reverse the VA policy.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced legislation this week in the Senate to cover Navy, Air Force and other personnel who came into contact with Agent Orange at sea or while loading aircraft used to deliver it.
Veterans who received the Vietnam Service Medal or the Vietnam Campaign Medal automatically would be covered.
An identical bill introduced in May in the House has 180 sponsors, including New York Reps. John Hall, D-Dover, Eric Massa, D-Corning, Mike Arcuri, D-Utica, Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, and Nita Lowey, D-Harrison.
In Elmira, Robert Bly, director and benefits adviser for the Chemung County Department of Veterans Affairs, said the effort to recognize additional veterans for their exposure to Agent Orange comes as good news to him and the local veterans who so far have been excluded from that type of health coverage.
“If there is a measure that is passed that allows them to get that presumption (of exposure), that’s very good news,” Bly said. “I have a number of veterans in that category that we’ve worked on claims for.
“Absolutely it would have an impact,” he said. “We have a lot of what are referred to as blue-water Navy veterans — those who were in the theater but can’t prove that they were boots on the ground in Vietnam.”
Gillibrand said she became aware of the issue from a veterans’ advisory committee she set up while serving as a House member representing the Hudson Valley.
“These veterans are being treated very poorly,” she said.
Passage of the legislation — which would increase the VA’s health care costs — may be difficult.
“It will be controversial, but I think we will be able to develop the support necessary for it,” Gillibrand said.
Recent scientific findings, such as a study earlier this year by the Institute of Medicine, have added to the large body of evidence that exposure to Agent Orange increases the risk of health problems such as heart disease or Parkinson’s.
New York’s junior senator also has introduced another bill, the Agent Orange Children’s Study, that would require the VA to examine the possibility that chronic illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and asthma in children can be traced to their parent’s exposure to Agent Orange.
“I have high hopes,” Rademaker said.
His cancer was covered by private insurance and is in remission, but he still worries about developing other service-related health problems.
Navy veteran Willard Hughes of Bath said in a phone interview that he’s also optimistic that Congress will eliminate the VA’s denial of Agent Orange coverage for service members who weren’t on the ground.
Hughes served aboard a destroyer, the USS Newman K. Perry, while it was stationed for six months along Vietnam’s Mekong River delta. He provided gunfire support for ground troops.
The 69-year-old BOCES retiree suffered from Type 2 diabetes and has breathing problems that he says were caused by Agent Orange in the ship’s drinking water.
“They were using Agent Orange quite heavily during that time as a defoliant,” Hughes said.
He said Australia and New Zealand have recognized the connection and cover their seamen who served in Vietnam.