Like many of his fellow Vietnam veterans, Kenneth Williams was fresh out of high school when he began a nearly 2½ year tour of duty as a radioman aboard the USS Hull, a destroyer that patrolled the sea, including the waters of Danang Harbor off the coast of Vietnam.
The soldiers and sailors on the rivers inside Vietnam were “brown water” servicemen. Williams is considered a “blue water” veteran because he never set foot on Vietnamese soil and his ship did not operate on the inland waterways of Vietnam.
That distinction makes a world of difference to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2002, the VA decided to exclude thousands of Blue Water Navy veterans from receiving some benefits for exposure to the poisonous herbicide Agent Orange, which was used to defoliate forests and jungles to expose opposing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters. The Agent Orange Act of 1991 said veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam from Jan. 9, 1962, to May 7, 1975, are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and are eligible for VA compensation benefits.
Williams, 69, of Harrisburg served aboard the USS Hull from March 1965 until June 1967. Williams said he’s certain he was exposed to Agent Orange.
When Williams was diagnosed with a heart condition often associated with Agent Orange exposure, he applied for disability benefits but was denied because of the VA’s 2002 decision.
“Because I didn’t have boots on the ground, I wasn’t covered,” he said. “I could have stepped one foot off the ship on Vietnam soil, and I would have been covered.”
Williams has joined other Blue Water Navy veterans to call attention to bills in the U.S. Senate and Congress to establish the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act and restore the benefits the VA stripped in 2002. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association also has filed a lawsuit against the VA to restore “the presumption of service connection for diseases associated with exposure” to Agent Orange.
Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association Executive Director John Rossie equates the presumptive right to “you were there, you were exposed — not ‘if’ you were exposed.”
The proposed act adds “the territorial seas of such Republic” to follow the establishment of compensation and benefits for military personnel who “served on active duty in the Republic of Vietnam.”
A rally is set for May 18 in Washington, D.C., to call attention to the bills, which currently are “languishing” in House and Senate committees, Rossie said. The association is calling for peaceful demonstrations outside all VA facilities to bring attention to the legislation.
Williams firmly supports the cause but said he won’t participate in a rally outside the Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital because his anger and frustration are directed at higher powers.
“I don’t have a problem with my VA here,” he said. “I’ve been treated great. It’s the head honchos” in Washington “that are the culprits — not this hospital.”
Williams said other governments, including New Zealand, Australia and Canada, have determined that Navy personnel were in some ways more affected by Agent Orange “than the guys who had boots on the ground.”
A 2011 study by the National Institute of Medicine found multiple ways that Blue Water Navy veterans might have been exposed to Agent Orange but that there was not enough information to determine conclusively whether they had or had not been exposed to the herbicide. Another National Institute of Medicine report suggested that Blue Water Navy veterans be included in a set of Vietnam-era veterans with “presumed herbicide exposure.”
The desalination process that made seawater potable for servicemen on the ship didn’t remove toxins, Williams said. “We cooked with it, drank it, showered in it.”
An electrician he served alongside on the destroyer has non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A fellow radioman is in a nursing home near Memphis. Williams said others he served with now suffer from health conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure.
“They get health care, but they can’t get disability,” Williams said. “There’s just so many things that’s pointing toward our ship being contaminated with this stuff.”
The VA does consider cases of Blue Water Navy veterans who say they were exposed to herbicides during military service for disability compensation, though each case is adjudicated on an individual basis. The VA does not require any proof of a service connection from veterans who have non-Hodgkin lymphoma because the department recognizes the disease as related to service in Vietnam or the republic’s offshore waters.
Agent Orange exposure often shows up much later in life or in birth defects.
“Knock on wood and praise God that none of my kids have that stuff,” Williams said. “But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t exposed to it.”
Rossie said tens of thousands of Blue Water veterans are depending on congressional action or public pressure on the VA to reinstate the benefits.
“We are dealing with serious health issues that range from cancer to diabetes and from Parkinson’s to heart disease,” he said. “Many of these diseases have made it nearly impossible for some of us to get steady work.”
Rossie said the VA extended benefits to Air Force members last year who flew in planes that were used to spray the “toxic cocktail” in Vietnam. He wonders why the Navy veterans are still being ignored.
“We breathed the Agent Orange-polluted air that drifted from the coast and drank water sprinkled with” the toxin, he said. “Now our bodies are paying the price.”
Posted in Local on Sunday, April 24, 2016 12:00 am.