WASHINGTON (CN) - Navy veterans sued the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, demanding "the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange for members of the Armed Forced of the United States who served afloat off the coast of the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War."
The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, and Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc. sued Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in Federal Court
The veterans claim they were exposed to Agent Orange while serving offshore Vietnam and the government won't pay their medical bills and denied benefits to survivors of veterans who "died from complication[s] of Agent Orange."
The United States sprayed Agent Orange (2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin) and petroleum across the Vietnamese countryside in the 1960s and 1970s as a part of Operation Ranch Hand, a program to defoliate Vietnamese jungles and destroy food supplies during the Vietnam War.
The chemicals washed into rivers and streams and eventually into the bed of the South China Sea.
"During the Vietnam War, the coastline, especially in the harbors and within the thirty fathom curve was a busy place, with military and civilian shipping constantly entering and leaving the area in support of the war effort," the complaint states. "Whenever ships anchored, the anchoring evolution would disturb the shallow seabed and churn up the bottom. Weighing anchor actually pulled up a small portion of the bottom. The cavitation of military ships moving along the coast line, especially within the ten fathom curve, at high speeds, further impinged on the sea bottom. This caused the Agent Orange to constantly rise to the surface."
After churning up the Agent Orange while traversing and anchoring offshore, unsophisticated methods of turning saltwater into potable water intensified the chemical, furthering their exposure, the veterans claim.
Uncle Sam doesn't see it that way.
When the Department of Veteran Affairs drafted regulations to implement the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which provided benefits to veterans showing symptoms of exposure, it defined beneficiaries as those who served "in the Republic of Vietnam" as "service in the waters offshore and service in other locations if the conditions of service involved duty or visitation in the Republic of Vietnam" - except for "members who served offshore but not within the land borders of Vietnam," according to the complaint.
After years of administrative challenges, litigation, and slight changes in the regulations' language, Veterans Affairs published a notice stating that there is not enough evidence to support the presumption of Agent Orange exposure to offshore veterans.
But on the other side of the planet, Australia has been paying benefits to similarly situated Australian soldiers since 2005, according to the lawsuit.
"For several years, Australian Navy veterans have been receiving benefits denied to their American counterparts," the complaint states.
The veterans say that exposure to Agent Orange causes numerous diseases, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, respiratory cancers, mesothelioma and diabetes.
The Republic of Vietnam has estimated that 400,000 people were killed or maimed by Operation Ranch Hand, and 500,000 children were born with birth defects.
"By 1967, studies initiated by the United States government proved that Agent Orange caused cancer and birth defects," the complaint states. "Despite this finding the aerial defoliation continued without pause."
The veterans seek an injunction preventing Shinseki from denying the presumption of Agent Orange exposure to those who served aboard ships in the territorial seas, and an order forcing the Department of Veterans Affairs to readjudicate the claims of all veterans affected by the government's decision to deny exposure.
The veterans are represented by John Wells of Slidell, La.
Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc. is based in Slidell. The Blue Water Navy veterans Association is based in Littleton, Colo.