Monday, November 29, 2010

Shed No Tears for The Agent Orange Equity Act

First, open a window and allow fresh air into your room...there will be several stinkbombs in what you are about to read.

Next, some background.
In August of 2008 a group of Veterans gathered online in secret and wrote a letter to Bob Filner, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Filner had introduced the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2008 a month earlier. It was designed to restore the benefits to Veterans who Congress intended to include in the original Agent Orange Act of 1991, but the Department of Veterans Affairs had taken away in a series of illegal steps starting in 1991 by barring Veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, and/or Cambodia [TLC] during the Vietnam War, then in 1993, by barring the "Blue Sky Air Force", those aircrews who flew combat, cargo, transport, and medevac aircraft over South Vietnam; and finally in 2002, by barring any member of the Blue Water Navy who served off the coast of South Vietnam and did not set foot on the ground. Illegal? At each step of the way, the DVA failed to put any of those changes to the policy, or to their policy manuals out for public comment as required by the Administrative Procedures Act. Each of those changes were, and still are, illegal.

That secret group, comprised by about 30 or so Air Force Veterans from TLC, and at least three Blue Water Navy Veterans, requested that Filner add additional groups of Veterans who did not receive the Vietnam Service Medal - VSM [or its equivalent, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for Service in Vietnam or AFEM-VN], but specifically requested Veterans who received the Vietnam Campaign Medal, or VCM,, issued for service of 6 months or longer in areas outside of the Vietnam-TLC Theater of War, but in support of the war effort there; and specifically requested coverage for Veterans who served on Johnston Island, where Herbicides were gathered after the cessation of spraying in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The addition of those outside groups, which included Johnston Island, Guam, Okinawa, the Republic of the Philippines, Korea, Panama, and other locations involved with the transport of herbicides to Vietnam, and their storage in those locations, ran the cost of the bill right out of the ballpark, making it too expensive for a Congress winding down the second year of the 110th Congress. The bill died in Committee, sunk under its own weight. Stink Bomb #1

Fast forward to the spring of 2009.
After a long delay, in April, 2009 representatives of the Veterans Association of Sailors of the Vietnam War [VASVW] visited Chairman Filner to urge him to reintroduce the bill. He agreed after expressing some concern about the cost. [As you will see, he was not addressing the exact same bill he introduced in July of 2008, but rather a version that was closer to what had sunk under its own weight after the addition of the outside groups noted above to the bill.] After promising us seats at the bill's legislative hearings, Filner also detailed a staff member to work with VASVW toward passage of the bill.

The following week, as promised, Filner introduced the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2009, HR 2254 [and six months later a Senate version, S.1939 was introduced by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.] As soon as we read the bill, we contacted the staffer to explain that the bill, as worded, contained some errors. The inclusion of Johnston Island was incorrect, and the use as an eligibility qualifier of the Vietnam Campaign Medal should have been corrected to the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for Service in Vietnam. The staffer defended the wording as correct and would not agree to a change no matter what we said. Stink Bomb #2 And so, HR 2254/S.1939 was as doomed from the start as HR 6562 was in 2008 after the secret group's list was added to the bill.

Do not cry for the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2009... was never intended to be passed. As introduced, it was, quite simply, Too Damned Expensive! Regardless of the spending spree of the 111th Congress, the AO Equity Act of 2009 was prohibitively expensive. Stink Bomb #3

We researched and argued the numbers, but the whole time we were doing so, we were counting on getting to those hearings to get the language fixed. We made countless visits to Congressional offices [both houses] and talked to staff about the language of the bill, and how it should be corrected to make the bill strictly restorative. We were, in all but one office, that of Senator James Webb, successful in winning support for the bill on those terms: No Johnston Island, no VCM, replaced by the AFEM-VN. That made the bill completely restorative.

We were never permitted access to Chairman Filner after that April, 2009 meeting. Either Filner, or his staff acting on their own, barred any appointment requests, and letters, faxes and emails to Filner from VASVW. And of course, there were no legislative hearings. None. Filner pawned off a hearing on the Agent Orange Longitudinal Study as a sop to the only VASVW representatives to get to see him in 18 months.

The language of the 2009 bill was the result of the secret group's letter in August of 2008. The specific inclusion of Johnston Island and the Vietnam Campaign Medal is a direct link to that letter.

That, then, is twice the secret group has sunk the bill. Our understanding is that as late as mid-October, about 6 weeks ago, The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association [BWNVVA] was still advocating for the inclusion of those external groups in the bill. For all we know, they still do. We have no information to the contrary. Two and a half years of legislative advocacy down the drain is one thing, but the premature deaths in poverty of so many Veterans is something else entirely.

"A Veteran's worst enemy is another Veteran."
And there is no excuse for it. In September of 2008, we visited Chairman Filner and gave him copies of two bills, one a restoration act, fleshed out to cover and protect full retroactive benefits regardless of whether the Veterans appealed a denial or not, and the other a supplemental act that covered not just Guam, or Okinawa, or Korea, but any Veteran of the Vietnam Era, who had NOT received the VSM or the AFEM-VN, but served anywhere else in the world where dioxin based herbicides were used, stored, or shipped through. Filner claimed he liked them. We spread them around, even gave them to other advocacy groups. So, they had two years to write their own bill, or advocate for introduction of the one we wrote. They did neither, which makes their culpability that much worse. In their zeal to "leave no one behind," they left everyone behind -- twice! Stink Bomb #4

Why would the DVA strip benefits from so many Veterans?
We simply do not know why they would go against the sound advice of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who recommended in his 1991 report to the DVA [that was used as a guide for writing the Agent Orange Act of 1991], a broad based, simple qualifying factor, such as the Vietnam Service Medal [or the AFEM-VN], and a qualifying dioxin-related disease to grant presumptive eligibility of exposure. Better, he said, to grant benefits to a few who were not exposed and get 99% of those who were, than to limit the qualification and let many who were exposed fall through the cracks.

We do not know. But we do have ideas. One is that some legal factor would create another class of dioxin poisoned Veterans that would force a new class action suit to be opened up against not only the chemical companies that produced the herbicides, but also the US Government/Department of Defense for ordering the overly dangerous formula of the mix in the barrels and despite the pleadings of at least one chemical company, refusing to allow any danger warnings or symbols to be placed on the barrels filled with the rainbow herbicides.

Another is to re-channel the money Congress appropriated for the benefits of those who were removed from eligibility by the DVA, and use it for other purposes. Some of those purposes might be, for example, bonuses for their mid and upper-level management, land and building acquisition, and especially in recent years, the funding of the Rural Health Centers expansion, which would include land acquisition, building design, construction, local permits, medical equipment and supplies, the hiring and training of staff at each facility, and the current overhead for each facility.

We think it would be infinitely less expensive to issue a Medical Coverage card to each Veteran eligible for health care, and let that Veteran go wherever he chooses for treatment, with the exception of Service Connected disabilities, which would require at least regular monitoring, and/or treatment at a VA Medical Center.

Either way, to the best of our knowledge, the Congressional appropriation for AO Benefits for BWN, TLC, BSAF Veterans and their survivors, is still in place, but is being spent on other things. And that is Stink Bomb #5.

Last Best Hope
Pray. Pray like you never have before. There is still a glimmer of hope for a bill this session, another effort to come at it from a different direction and get a different bill, the Agent Orange Restoration Act, passed this session. Congress is only in session for a few more days. Pray. Pray that we can finally slay this monster that is prematurely killing us in poverty.

Wait a while yet, then you can close that window.


”It is a stain on this nation's honor that the Department of Veterans Affairs has become a deadlier and more difficult adversary to the American veteran than any they have ever faced on a battlefield."-- VNVets

"The concept that Agent Orange, and its effects, stopped dead in its tracks at the shoreline is simply too illogical, and too ludicrous to accept. What does that say about the Obama Administration and his Department of Veterans Affairs?"--VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." --President Abraham Lincoln

"It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious."--President George Washington

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  1. Anonymous20:46

    You amaze me...what about all the directives not to 'bother' Mr Filner? I wondered how long it would be before the 'great leader' of this blog would come on line with all the alibis. Since this will probably never get out of moderation; consider this a message for YOU Mr Big-Me-Little-You!!

  2. For what it is worth, we would pose the question to you: What good would it have done to 'bother" Mr. Filner? The bill was never intended to pass.

    Beyond that, do not make this about me. I did not introduce the bill, nor did I ever stop trying to get the wording altered.

    If you want to blame anyone, blame Filner, and blame those who convinced him to add the other groups to the bill.

    If you have a persoanl problem with me, then contact me and we can discuss it. But I will draw your attention to the section near the top of the left column about comments.

    Shame on you for continuing to get taken in by those who have sunk this bill twice.