You may know that Vietnam vets are entitled to payments if they have certain illnesses presumed to be from exposure to Agent Orange. What you may not know is that in 2002, the government suddenly excluded one group of Vietnam vets from automatic compensation: sailors exposed to Agent Orange offshore. Today’s cover story is the Blue Water vets’ search for justice, 50 years later.
Joe Lolley: I joined the Navy in 1970 and got out in 1974.
Sharyl: And you never were on the ground in Vietnam in combat?
Lolley: No. I never was.
Sharyl: And therein lies the problem?
Joe Lolley was deployed to Vietnam as a Photographer's Mate onboard USS Constellation. After Vietnam, he left his 18 year old pregnant his wife at home for another tour on the USS John F Kennedy. And bad things started to happen. First, he got a weird skin disease he later learned was connected to herbicides like Agent Orange.
Sharyl: Like, skin boils or lesions?
Lolley: Boils, lesions, everything. They ooze all the time. My shirt would actually become stuck to it. I had that and was treated on John F. Kennedy for that and given medication for that. But nobody knew anything. It was just, you got a really bad acne disease. Nobody said this was caused from your trip in Vietnam. I don't think nobody knew it, or if they did, they weren't talking.
Rep. Roe: Agent Orange is a dioxin, which is a defoliant. It was used in Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, Guam I think also, to defoliate areas where the enemy could hide out.
Congressman Phil Roe, a doctor and an Army vet, is the lead Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Rep. Roe: If you were fighting in a jungle where there's very thick growth and you're being ambushed, you want to clear out that perimeter so that your soldiers are safe. It turned out that obviously Agent Orange, or dioxin, is a very dangerous chemical to defoliate. It made sense. If it made leaves fall off trees, it probably wasn't good for humans.
Millions of gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over Vietnam. It got on the aircraft that landed on the Navy ships. It washed into the rivers and sea.
Lolley: The ships make their water from the sea water. So if the water was contaminated then we would have drawn it in. So we were bathing, drinking, cooking, washing, anything you used fresh water for, washing our laundry. Washing aircraft.
While dealing with his strange skin condition, Lolley got tragic news from home.
Lolley: The other part then, was Jane was pregnant and unfortunately we lost the child we lost the child. It was born on my birthday. By the time I got back the baby was buried. They never let Jane see him.
The baby was severely deformed. After that, the Lolleys went on to have a miscarriage and two more children, one disabled with brain disorders. In his 30s Lolley got colon disease. In his 40s, partial colon removal, a heart attack and triple bypass. Then prostate surgeries. Today, add diabetes and urinary and nerve issues - Some of the ailments presumed to be caused by Agent Orange and compensated under a law passed in 1991, whether the vet was a soldier or sailor.
Lolley: Agent Orange Act of 1991 included us in compensation and health benefits.
Suddenly in 2002, automatic compensation for the sailors— the Blue Water vets— was denied on a technicality:
Lolley: That was taken away from us buy some maneuvering and around 2002, as to what constitutes the definition of service in the Republic of Vietnam.
The V.A. determined blue water service doesn’t count as Vietnam service. So even though Lolley’s medical records from the V.A. no less fault Agent Orange, as far as V.A. compensation, he was never there. Michael Yates is in the same boat.
Video: The USS Bainbridge – largest of the destroyer class
He served in the waters off Vietnam on the USS Bainbridge.
Sharyl: Can you go over what some of your health issues are?
Mike Yates: From bottom up, I have prostate cancer, I have thyroid cancer, heart disease, lung disease, skin cancer, hypertension, couple problems with my heart.
He says those diseases don’t run in his family. Some presumed illnesses from Agent Orange. Denied compensation from the V.A., he fell behind on copayments for his doctor’s visits at the V.A.
Yates: We had the payment plan going for a while, and finally I get a letter in the mail saying we're gonna garnish your social security money.
Sharyl: What were you being treated for there?
Yates: Prostate cancer and thyroid cancer.
Sharyl: So they wanted you to pay back, or pay co-payments for your cancer treatments?
Yates: To pay for these co-payments. To get them paid off. I was retired for 3 years, and by going to the V.A., I have to pay these copayments. A lot of places you have to pay co-payments, but mine got up to like 20... almost 3,000 dollars.
Sharyl: Over what time period?
Yates: Just over 2 years.
Sharyl: 3,000 dollars? So the VA treatment's not free for you?
Yates: It's not free. I still have to pay 25 dollar copayments, 35 dollar copayments, nine dollars for medicine. Around nine dollars. But to start paying back faster I went back to work at 64 years old... 65 years old. Something like that. And you know, I was supposed to be retired at that point, but now I'm still working.
Both Yates and Lolley are advocates at The Blue Water Navy Association. They recently gathered on Capitol Hill to press for a remedy, like a popular bill Congressman Roe proposed to restore benefits to sailors.
Sharyl: In simple terms, your bill says what?
Rep. Roe: It says this: it says if you are a veteran who served on the surface, that you will have these presumptions, the same presumptions that any other soldier, sailor, airman, marine that put their feet on the ground in Vietnam had. We're gonna treat everybody the same.
Roe says under his proposal, the costs of compensating the Blue Water vets wouldn’t add to the deficit, they’d be paid by vets themselves though a slight increase in V.A. loan fees. The bill had impressive support. In 2018, it passed in the House 382-nothing. But it was blocked in a procedural move by two Senators.
Rep. Roe: We had a couple of senators that held it up, put a hold on it, and we just could not get it done.
Sharyl: Who put a hold on it in the Senate and why?
Rep. Roe: I think there were two senators, Senator Lee and one other senator.
Sharyl: Do you know who that was?
Rep. Roe: I think his objection was-
Sharyl: Who was it? Who was the other one?
Rep. Roe: It was Senator Enzi-
Rep. Roe:... from Wyoming. One was, Senator Enzi's worry was the physical cost of it.
Senator Mike Enzi told us the bill would cost more than original estimates. Senator Mike Lee said more scientific information is needed. While the bill was stalled in the Senate, the Blue Water vets took their case to court arguing that in the law on the books since 1991: Vietnam service means land or sea. In January, a breakthrough. A federal court ruled for the vets. It said that in the original Agent Orange law, when Congress ordered compensation to vets serving in the ‘Republic of Vietnam,’ it “unambiguously referred, consistent with uniform international law, to both its landmass and its 12-nautical-mile territorial sea.”
Rep. Roe: One of the things I am so concerned about is, that we're losing not just Blue Water, but all Vietnam-era veterans my age. 523 a day are dying. As I explained to my colleagues, I said, "Look, this is a self-limiting problem. We know how many veterans there are. We're dying at a fairly rapid rate now. If you wait long enough, none of us will be around.”
Sharyl: In retrospect, you served our country and the result, if this is connected to Agent Orange, was a lot of heartache, headache, physical health problems for you. Looking back, do you wish you would have done something differently? Do you regret the service that you gave?
Yates: I don't regret the service. I think it did me a lot of good. I hated it back then probably, but looking back, I enjoyed the time I was in. At the time they tell you that they will take care of you in the future. And here the V.A. is saying we're gonna take care of everybody else, but we're not gonna take care of you guys. It's just unfair.
Lolley: I would like for a country that I've served to recognize what we gave and to provide care, help, benefits also if you will, but primarily medical care, health care, for those who have been afflicted.
As to the recent court decision that blue water vets are like other Vietnam vets...The VA told us it “will determine an appropriate response.”