Six senators, including Elizabeth Warren, urge VA to cover stateside Agent Orange exposure



Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Six U.S. senators, including Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat representing Massachusetts, have sent a letter imploring the federal government to allow pilots and crews who flew Agent Orange-contaminated plans on stateside missions to qualify for benefits.

The letter could push the four-year quest of a retired pilot from Belchertown closer to his goal of getting veterans falling ill from Agent Orange-related maladies — but who never served in Vietnam — covered for benefits like their peers who served there.

Retired Air Force Col. Archer Battista said the delayed government response has been frustrating. In January, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies released a report stating that it is “plausible” domestic crews who worked on planes contaminated by Agent Orange could be falling ill as a result of that exposure. The planes had been used in to dump the toxic defoliant in Vietnam.

Battista, 68, said he can’t speculate on why the government is not acting with greater speed on this issue, but the end result is a bad one.

“The impact is that many within our group are sick — some are dying,” said Battista.

The letter authored by U.S. Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was signed by Warren and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, as well as Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Michael Bennett, D-Colo.

Battista praised Warren for signing on to the letter, saying “she has our undying thanks and respect.”

But he stopped short of saying the letter means the sick veterans will soon be covered, given that he and others have been fighting this battle for so long already.

“It’s another string in our bow,” he said. “Whether or not the VA will say with this letter from six senators, ‘By golly, we better act,’ I don’t know.”

He noted that officials with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs earlier indicated a willingness to reconsider their long-standing refusal to cover any veterans who did not serve in Vietnam for presumed Agent Orange illnesses, but said he’s mystified by what he sees as stalling.

“This is in the context of four-plus years of a dance the Department of Veterans Affairs has been doing, the goal of which, we believe, has been to delay and deny” coverage for sick veterans, Battista said.

An estimated 1,500 to 2,100 U.S. Air Reserve crews between 1972 and 1982 worked in the United States on C-123 aircraft that had been used to spray Agent Orange during Operation Ranch Hand over the Vietnamese countryside.

Agent Orange is a toxic chemical responsible for a number of cancers and other serious illnesses.

Since 1991, veterans who served in Vietnam and the Korean demilitarized zones during the Vietnam War era have qualified for benefits under what is referred to as “presumed exposure,” while those who served in this country have been denied benefits.

Presumed exposure means veterans do not have to prove an association between their illness and the chemical in order to be covered for benefits.

In January, Meagan Lutz, a public affairs specialist with the VA, said a committee would be assembled to figure out how to proceed in light of the Institute of Medicine report, but she said it would likely take a few months before any policy changes are made. “We want to do right by these veterans,” she said.

Battista, who already qualifies for presumed exposure because of his five-year tour of duty in Vietnam, said he’s taken up the fight because it’s the right thing to do.


 

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