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Billings VA

Ed Saunders at a Veterans Administration clinic in Billings in 2014.

James Woodcock, Billings Gazette

Peter Beatty, a Navy veteran who served on a destroyer at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin at the height of the Vietnam War, died last December of multiple myeloma, a type of cancer.

The cancer is one of many conditions the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs deems a “presumptive disease,” meaning the agency acknowledges it is associated with exposure to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide used during the Vietnam War to destroy crops and defoliate jungles.

Vietnam veterans with those presumptive diseases and their survivors may be eligible for specific benefits because of their exposure. But Beatty’s brother-in-law, Ed Saunders, said the veteran’s widow has struggled to get what she should be entitled to because Peter served on a Navy ship and not on land within the borders of the Southeast Asian country.

“People have this vision of infantry soldiers getting sprayed in the jungle, but they have to remember Agent Orange is just like paint: you get it on your hands, you get it on your clothes and pretty soon you’re kind of dragging it everywhere,” said Saunders, a veteran himself who is married to Beatty’s sister.

“Even though sailors were offshore, they may have been downwind, they may have been exposed to clothing, especially equipment, or planes that threw that stuff and landed back on the ship. That’s how they may have come into contact with this.”

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act would change current law and extend health care and benefits for Agent Orange-associated conditions to Navy veterans like Beatty and their families. The bill has strong bipartisan support, including from Montana's congressional delegation. 

Versions of the bill have been co-sponsored by Montana's Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, since it was introduced in 2017. Daines had also previously introduced the legislation in 2016 with Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Tester authored the version of the bill that moved forward this week, his staff said.

“It is totally unacceptable that Vietnam-era veterans and their families have been battling the VA for years to get the health care and benefits they need," Tester said Friday. "I am pushing legislation that will right these wrongs and ensure every Montana veteran who was exposed to toxic substances can get the support they need.”

Daines said it's high time for the law to change.

“The lack of care the Navy Blue Water veterans have received is shameful,” said Daines. “It’s time we right this wrong and finally give them the care they deserve for serving and sacrificing for our country. I am glad to have led this effort and I will continuing fighting on their behalf.”

On Friday, Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who was elected about a year ago, said he supports the bill, which he could vote on as early as this week. The bill passed the House Veterans' Affairs Committee last week and now moves to the full House. After that it would go to the Senate for consideration.

“Our nation’s veterans have made great sacrifices for our country, and they deserve the very best care available," Gianforte said Friday. "I support U.S. Rep. Valadao’s Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act to keep our promise to our Vietnam veterans who may have developed conditions from their exposure to Agent Orange." Valadao, R-Calif., is sponsoring the House version of the bill.

Beverly Stewart is president of the Montana chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, an organization that has been working to get benefits for Blue Water veterans for decades.

The Agent Orange Act of 1991 recognized the link between exposure to herbicides, dioxins and defoliants and a set of medical conditions. A VA policy in 2002, however, limited benefits to veterans who served on land within the borders of Vietnam.

Eventually those who served on brown waters, or on rivers within the country, were able to seek benefits, but blue water veterans are still blocked.

“We have to fight to get that back,” Stewart said. “What they didn’t realize or want to accept was that all of the airplanes that were carrying the dioxins were loaded on those aircraft carriers out in the blue water, which to me is just crazy. It’s been a long time coming for them to recognize that they were just as much at risk as the guys on the ground.”

Peter Beatty’s younger sister, Charlene Saunders, said the destroyer her brother served on from 1969-1970 shot Agent Orange to shore. Her sister-in-law was told by the VA she needed to provide a photo of Peter Beatty on Vietnamese soil before they could process any benefit claims.

“I mean really? These guys got off the ship to go get mail. And they were actually shooting Agent Orange off the ship onto the shore,” Charlene Saunders said.

“(The VA) is such a slow, sluggish machine to get through. Even though Pete was not on the ground, they were blasting Agent Orange off the deck of that ship. My brother asked the commander if this stuff was a problem for anybody, and he was told it wasn’t. They probably didn’t know,” she said.

Ed Saunders said he has no question the claim would have been much easier to process — and quickly accepted — if Peter Beatty served on the ground in Vietnam.

“All we would have to say is he was in a certain infantry or ground unit and it would have almost been a given he was exposed to Agent Orange,” Ed Saunders said. “Even though sailors served offshore in Vietnam, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t exposed to Agent Orange in any way because sometimes the chemical has a residual effect on airplanes and equipment and things of that nature.”

The progress of the bill is encouraging for Stewart, but it’s too late for her own brother-in-law, whose situation is similar to Beatty’s.

He served three tours in Vietnam on aircraft carriers and died last year of lung cancer, another disease presumed by the VA to have a connection to Agent Orange exposure

“We could never get (benefits) approved for him because he was on an aircraft carrier,” Stewart said. “The good thing about it is for all of those people in his situation, all of those veterans, their wives can pursue that as a widow if they so choose.”

The claims process for Stewart’s brother-in-law, she said, started five years ago. After an initial denial, it was in the appeals process — and had been for three years — when he died.

Stewart’s own husband, also a Vietnam veteran, died 21 years ago from melanoma. He served two tours on the ground in Vietnam, but since melanoma is not a disease the VA recognizes as associated with Agent Orange exposure, his benefit claims were also denied and in the appeals process when he died.

“It’s been a long fight,” Stewart said. “There’s so many veterans in that same situation as my brother-in-law. And it’s going to be very interesting to see how many Navy veterans there are that this will affect.”

Stewart said she feels lucky that her health is still good. She served a year in Vietnam in the finance corps, where she said she wasn’t exposed as much to soldiers who were around Agent Orange as much as someone who was a nurse, for example, would have been.

“So far, knock on wood, I’ve been very fortunate with my health.”

Michael Shepard has been commander of the Whitefish and Columbia Falls American Legion posts and is a representative with the legislative council that works with Montana’s congressional delegation on veterans issues.

Shepard’s cousin served two tours in the Navy on a World War II destroyer just off the coast of Vietnam.

Men who served on the destroyer were exposed to Agent Orange in a variety of ways, Shepard said. To get so-called fresh water, the vessel would pump in non-salt water from waterways that flowed from where Agent Orange had been sprayed. The destroyer was often so close to shore that air would move off land where Agent Orange had been sprayed overnight and fog would cover the ship.

“That engulfment was the Agent Orange coming off the land,” Shepard said.

While his cousin has suffered an array of health problems, what’s striking to Shepard is that of the the 383 men who served on the ship, his cousin said after their most recent reunion that only about 70 are still alive.

“Quite a few of them have had the various cancers that Agent Orange brings,” Shepard said. “It's been a long struggle and I feel sorry for a lot of those Navy guys because a lot of them are now gone and were never really covered by the VA."

Vietnam Veterans of America, Stewart said, has a main goal of establishing benefits in situations like this for veterans who served decades ago to make sure that younger veterans won’t have to fight the same battles.

“Nobody worked for us, so we want to make sure we’re working for them,” Stewart said.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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