Billy Worrell spent much of 1970 patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin in a destroyer.
And while he never came ashore in Vietnam, his ship, the USS Dewey, sometimes came within a few hundred yards of land.
That was close enough, Worrell of Douglass Township believes, that he and his fellow sailors breathed the poisonous Agent Orange that had been dropped on shore to destroy forest cover and crops. And close enough that the seawater the sailors drank, cooked with and showered in also contained the chemical, he said.
Worrell, 69, is one of thousands of Vietnam veterans known as “blue water veterans” — mostly Navy sailors and officers. Because their ships never entered Vietnam’s inland brown waters, they weren’t eligible for VA compensation, even though many had medical conditions they thought stemmed from Agent Orange.
Almost 45 years after the war ended, their eligibility is changing as the result of a January federal court ruling and the passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which became law in late June after both the House and Senate unanimously passed it.
Both the ruling and the act require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide disability benefits to veterans who served in waters near Vietnam and who have at least one of the 14 illnesses linked to Agent Orange. But while the VA was already granting benefits to some who applied after the court decision, the new law doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, and an announcement by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie indicates processing of blue water claims may now be on hold until then.
That would be unacceptable to John Wells, a retired Navy commander and executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy, one of two groups that filed the federal suit.
The group withdrew support for the legislation not only because of its delayed effective date, but also because the geographic area it recognizes for blue water veterans differs somewhat from the court ruling, which could cause problems for veterans, Wells said.
Last week Wells wrote a letter to Wilkie indicating his group will take the matter to court if claims are further delayed. With blue water veterans dying each day, time is of the essence, he said.
Last week the VA would not say how many blue water veterans could now qualify for benefits, what the cost will be, or whether the added claims will add to its current backlog. In response to questions, a spokeswoman would only say the VA has been planning to provide benefits and health care to blue water veterans.
But Wells estimates there are between 50,000 and 70,000 blue water veterans now eligible for VA benefits. The Blue Water Navy Association estimates that number at 90,000. And Wilkie said recently that he’s seen estimates that there will be up to 400,000 blue water veterans eligible to be new beneficiaries, which could overwhelm the system.
In Wilkie’s announcement of the delay, he said it was intended to “ensure that we have the proper resources in place to meet the needs of our blue water veteran community and minimize the impact on all veterans filing for disability compensation.”
In the past the Congressional Budget Office projected the cost at $1.1 billion over 10 years, while the VA has estimated the cost could reach $5.5 billion over 10 years. Blue Water Navy Association Commander Michael Yates said the VA figure was flawed, though, because it counted all those who served offshore, not just within the 12-mile limit.
‘The right thing to do’
Worrell is among those who have been waiting years to apply. He has Type 2 diabetes, one of the illnesses linked to Agent Orange.
Those monthly disability payments would be a welcome boost to the Social Security checks he relies on, he said. And even more importantly to him, he said, is that the law corrects a longtime mistake the government made in not properly compensating blue water veterans.
“The bean counters were against this,” he said. “They were more concerned about money than the effect on guys who served their country. I’m disappointed that it’s taken this long. But I’m happy we’re finally getting there.”
Steve Pradon, 72, of Spring Township, who served 32 years in the Navy and Naval Reserves, was aboard the destroyer USS Basilone in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1972. His ship got within about a half-mile of the coast while providing gunfire support, which was near enough to see the damage Agent Orange did to trees, and for the toxin to reach the sailors through the air and water, he said.
Depending on which way the wind blew, there were days when the sailors could see a mist they believed to be the defoliant.
“With the prevailing westerlies (winds) off the coast, we absolutely came in contact with it,” he said. “You didn’t have to be on land to have put yourself in jeopardy.”
Five years ago Pradon was diagnosed with stage 3 Parkinson’s disease, which he thinks was caused by Agent Orange exposure. He now plans to file a VA claim, saying the disability pay would help his family financially, and also serve as a validation for the sacrifices he and other blue water veterans made.
“It’s the right thing to do for people who got these diseases, no matter what color water we were in,” he said.
Berks County Veterans Director Dale G. Derr encouraged blue water veterans with health issues they consider to be caused by Agent Orange exposure to make appointments with his office’s veterans service officers to develop claims, even if they’ve been denied benefits in the past.
“We want every one of them to come in for a consultation,” he said.
Widows and widowers of deceased veterans can also claim on their behalf accrued benefits up until the veteran’s death for health conditions related to Agent Orange, he said.
Though the legislation’s limit of 12 nautical miles will include many blue water vets, some who served on aircraft carriers outside that range but still believe they came in contact with Agent Orange feel they are again being excluded, Derr said.
Derr urged all Vietnam veterans to contact the environmental exposures clinic at any of the four regional VA medical centers to enroll in the federal Agent Orange Registry, which could give them access to health care advancements related to the toxin.
For years Yates, the Blue Water Navy Association Commander, has struggled to pay medical bills related to his prostate cancer, another condition connected to Agent Orange.
“I was going to the VA for some of my health care and the balance of my co-pays got up over $2,000,” said Yates, who lives in Las Vegas. When he didn’t pay fast enough, the VA garnished his Social Security checks, and he had to go back to work to cover his medical bills, he said.
He knows other blue water veterans who have had similar problems, and whom he hopes will now receive the compensation they deserve.
Wells wants the same, and vows to fight so there are no further delays.
“These veterans have waited long enough,” he said.
©2019 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.)
Visit the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.) at readingeagle.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.