by Mike Hixenbaugh (The Virginian-Pilot), Charles Ornstein and Terry Parris (ProPublica)
During the Vietnam War, hundreds of U.S. Navy ships crossed into Vietnam's rivers or sent crew members ashore, possibly exposing their sailors to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange. But more than 40 years after the war's end, the U.S. government doesn't have a full accounting of which ships traveled where, adding hurdles and delays for sick Navy veterans seeking compensation.
The Navy could find out where each of its ships operated during the war, but it hasn't. The U.S. Department of Affairs says it won't either, instead choosing to research ship locations on a case-by-case basis, an extra step that veterans say can add months — even years — to an already cumbersome claims process. Bills that would have forced the Navy to create a comprehensive list have failed in Congress.
As a result, many ailing vets, in a frustrating race against time as they battle cancer or other life-threatening diseases, have taken it upon themselves to prove their ships served in areas where Agent Orange was sprayed. That often means locating and sifting through stacks of deck logs, finding former shipmates who can attest to their movements, or tracking down a ship's command history from the Navy's historical archive.
"It's hell," said Ed Marciniak, of Pensacola, Fla., who served aboard the USS Jamestown during the war. "The Navy should be going to the VA and telling them, 'This is how people got aboard the ship, this is where they got off, this is how they operated.' Instead, they put that burden on old, sick, dying veterans, or worse — their widows."
Some 2.6 million Vietnam veterans are thought to have been exposed to — and possibly harmed by — Agent Orange, which the U.S. military used to defoliate dense forests, making it easier to spot enemy troops. But vets are only eligible for VA compensation if they went on land — earning a status called "boots on the ground" — or if their ships entered Vietnam's rivers, however briefly.
The VA says veterans aren't required to prove where their ships patrolled: "Veterans simply need to state approximately when and where they were in Vietnam waterways or went ashore, and the name of the vessel they were aboard, and VA will obtain the official Navy records necessary to substantiate the claimed service," VA spokesman Randal Noller wrote in an email.
Once the VA has that documentation, the vessel is added to a list of ships eligible for compensation, streamlining future claims from other crewmembers. But proactively searching thousands of naval records to build a comprehensive list of eligible ships — as some veterans have demanded — "would be an inefficient use of VA's resources," Noller said.
But because the historical records are sometimes missing or incomplete, veterans groups say the fastest and surest way to obtain benefits is for vets to gather records themselves and submit them as part of their initial claims.
More than 700 Navy ships deployed to Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. Veterans have produced records to get about half of them onto the VA's working list, with new ships being added every year. Still, veterans advocacy groups estimate about 90,000 Navy vets are not eligible to receive benefits related to Agent Orange exposure, either because their ships never entered inland waters, or because they have yet to prove they did.
Joseph Pires, 68, spent 2 1/2 years working to convince the VA that his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Bennington, should be added to the list.
He reviewed the daily deck logs to find the latitude and longitude recordings and read officers' descriptions of the ship's movements. He found a listing for Dec. 26, 1966, when the ship entered Qui Nhon Bay Harbor to pick up comedian Bob Hope and his troupe for an onboard Christmas show.
"Now I had the proof," he said.
He submitted it to the VA, waited a year and received an email on Dec. 31 notifying him the Bennington had been added to the VA's list. That makes about 2,800 crew members aboard the ship on those two days eligible for benefits if they have illnesses associated with Agent Orange.
Now Pires is waging the next battle: His personal application for benefits, based on his prostate cancer and ischemic heart disease, has been pending for nine months.
"They put everything on your shoulders," said Pires, who serves as the Bennington's historian.
Pires, of Calabash, N.C., is among more than 4,000 Vietnam veterans and family members from across the country who've shared Agent Orange-exposure stories with ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot over the past several months.
The importance of proving to the VA which ships went inland during the war was underscored last month, when the VA rejected a request from veterans and members of Congress to extend benefits to all Navy veterans who served within 12 miles of the Vietnamese coast, the so-called Blue Water veterans. Those vets believe they were exposed to Agent Orange even if they stayed off the coast, arguing that their ships sucked in water tainted with the herbicide, which contains the dangerous chemical dioxin, and used it for showering, cooking and cleaning.
When Congress passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991, the VA initially approved benefits for any sailor who had earned the Vietnam Service Medal. But in 2002, it began denying sick Blue Water Navy vets compensation for Agent Orange exposure, maintaining that the placement of a comma in the original legislation made a distinction between those who served on the ground in Vietnam and those who served elsewhere.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims directed the VA to review its rules for compensating Blue Water Navy Veterans. In February, 10 months later, the VA affirmed its policy of providing benefits only to those who served on land or in inland waters. If anything, the VA tightened its policy by excluding ships that entered certain bays and harbors that had previously been accepted.
The VA estimates it would cost taxpayers $4.4 billion over the next decade to provide benefits to all Blue Water veterans, but its policy of excluding them has complicated the task of determining who's eligible for compensation.
By 2006, veterans had begun presenting evidence of those ships' activities, and the VA began granting Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water veterans on a case-by-case basis. A couple years later, veterans advocates succeeded in convincing the VA to use the evidence submitted by individual veterans to maintain a list of approved ships.
John Rossie, executive director of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association and a Vietnam veteran, agreed to help the government collect information from affected veterans, hoping to speed up the process. He said he put out a message in 2009 telling Navy vets that if they sent him their ship's deck logs, he would get them to the VA.
"A month later, I smacked myself on the forehead, because I started getting buried under boxes full of these deck logs."
The first published list came out in January 2010 and had 16 ships on it.
As veterans have come forward with records — and as the VA has conducted its own searches — the agency has added a few dozen ships each year. More than 430 ships are listed now. The pace has slowed, but Rossie is confident more need to be added.
"It's been a lot of work," Rossie said. "A lot of individuals have invested a lot of hours in this."
To make the process easier, Blue Water vets pressed for legislation in 2013 that would have required the Navy to pull all of the deck logs and compile an accurate accounting of which ships spent time inside Vietnam's border. That bill passed the House, 404–1, but didn't advance in the Senate.
A year later, in 2014, advocates got the House to insert language into the National Defense Authorization Act that would have required the same thing. John Wells, a Louisiana lawyer who has spent more than a decade advocating for Blue Water veterans, said the language was stripped from the Senate version after the Navy objected, contending it would cost the service $5 million to conduct a study to locate each ship.
The Navy did not answer questions for this story.
Marciniak, the veteran from Pensacola, says he was fortunate. He'd held onto paperwork proving that he'd spent time in Saigon before flying back to the U.S.
That yellowing page spelling out his orders was enough to prove to the VA that the 76-year-old Navy vet was eligible for compensation after he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and heart disease a few years ago. The claim was approved in 2013, a year and a half after he initiated the process.
Others he served with aboard the Jamestown, a research vessel, off the coast of Vietnam had a harder fight. The ship, along with the USS Oxford, intercepted enemy radio traffic and frequently sent crew members ashore to deliver sensitive information to commanders on the ground. As a result, the ships' activities were classified, making it more difficult for veterans to come up with records proving where they served.
Former Oxford and Jamestown crewmembers were eventually able to get their hands on declassified command reports that included details about the trips ashore. Those records helped get both ships added to the VA's list in 2011.
"Even with the ship listed, it took the VA more than 18 months before they approved my claim," Marciniak said. "I've written letters for three widows addressed to the VA explaining how the the Jamestown operated and describing our regular courier runs, because their husbands' died before they were able to get VA compensation."
Another challenge: Veterans who were denied benefits before their ships were added to the list must start the process all over again. "The problem there," Rossie said, "is these guys are sick and dying. They don't have a lot of time to jump through hoops."
Rory Riley-Topping, a consultant and former staff director for the House VA Subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs, said the VA has many pressing issues to deal with — health care wait times, construction delays, benefits backlogs. "Bureaucracies that are large are not known for their efficiencies, and this is a great example of bureaucracies being shortsighted and not understanding the big picture. A lot of people thought this issue would go away, and obviously it didn't."
For John Kirkwood, the push to get the amphibious command ship USS Mount McKinleyadded began in March 2010 when he went to the VA hospital in San Diego because he wasn't feeling well. He spent 40 days in the hospital after a heart attack. His wife and stepdaughter initiated a claim for benefits. A little over a year later, it was denied because he couldn't prove he was in Vietnam or exposed to Agent Orange.
Kirkwood wasn't able to get deck logs from the National Archives or the Navy. Both said they didn't have them and had no idea where they were. "I didn't know what the hell to think at that point," said Kirkwood, a 66-year-old retired auto body technician.
In May 2011, he posted a note on the ship's website that read, "I was a shipmate of yours on the last cruise of the Mount McKinley in 1969. The purpose of this comment is to see if any of you remember going into Da Nang harbor on that cruise for liberty, parties at China Beach and water skiing in the harbor behind the Captain's Gig."
Emails began streaming in from shipmates he knew and those he didn't. "I remember going ashore," one wrote in an email he shared with ProPublica and The Pilot.
"You are not the first one to ask these questions," another wrote.
Kirkwood also found a cruise book in his garage, which is essentially a scrapbook of the tour. "I was able to take photocopies out of there showing that we actually went to Da Nang Harbor," he said. "I can't make up a cruise book."
A fellow shipmate sent him a calendar he kept, showing the ship was anchored in Da Nang Harbor over 60 days of that cruise. Kirkwood's own claim for benefits was approved in January 2013. Kirkwood then forwarded his documentation to Rossie, who forwarded it to the VA. The ship was added to the VA's list in July of that year.
"Sometimes I felt I was fighting a losing battle, but I'm persistent," Kirkwood said.
Others are still fighting. Brad Davidson began researching the process in November after being diagnosed with two conditions associated with Agent Orange.
Davidson, who declined to disclose his specific health troubles, remembered going ashore for leisure breaks multiple times during his deployment aboard the destroyer USS Brinkley Bass in 1970, but he had no records to prove it. He tracked down the deck logs, which showed the ship spent time anchored in Da Nang Harbor, Cam Ranh Bay and Ganh Rai Bay, but nothing in the handwritten notes mentioned crew members being ferried ashore during those stops.
"That is a problem, trying to get a clear recollection all these years later," said Davidson, 69, who lives near Chicago. "And beyond that, getting hard evidence. … They don't make it easy."
Earlier this year he got in touch with his crew's reunion group, and a few former shipmates responded with photographs of crew members at a beach party at Cam Ranh.
His memories from that time are a blur, Davidson said, but that afternoon spent drinking beer on a beach 46 years ago could be the difference between receiving thousands of dollars per year in disability benefits and receiving nothing.
"I think we've certainly convinced ourselves," Davidson said. "But we're not sure what it's going to take to get us on the VA's list. We think it's enough, but we don't know for sure what the VA requires."
He faces an uphill battle. Generally, the VA hasn't accepted photographs to prove a veteran spent time on the ground in Vietnam. Davidson hopes the agency makes an exception in his case.
"I don't really have time to wait and find out."
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