Senators press VA on Agent Orange

Seven senators are pushing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Bob McDonald to grant benefits for Agent Orange exposure to a group of post-Vietnam veterans.

Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said that justice “is long overdue” for veterans who crewed C-123 aircraft after the Vietnam War.

“We write to urge you to utilize the Department of Veterans Affairs’ existing statutory authority to quickly begin providing care and benefits to veterans who were exposed to toxic herbicide residue while serving on Fairchild UC-123 Provider (C-123) aircraft after the era when those aircraft were used to transport Agent Orange in Vietnam,” they wrote in the letter Friday, which was released Monday. “Justice for these veterans is long overdue and you have the authority and the ability to finally right this wrong.”

C-123 veterans have struggled for decades to get the VA to grant benefits for their illnesses, which they believe are tied to Agent Orange exposure.

An Institute of Medicine report earlier this year found that at least some of the post-Vietnam veterans who served on the C-123 aircraft were exposed to the toxin, and were at risk for developing illnesses.

Agent Orange exposure has been tied a range of diseases including cancer.

But the senators said they have heard that “a question has arisen” since the report was released about whether or not C-123 crew members — typically Air Force reservists and National Guard members — qualify as veterans under the VA’s guidelines for benefits.

“We fundamentally disagree and believe VA’s precedential interpretations of the relevant statute and the policy principle and legal precedent of construing statutes in favor of veterans requires VA to find these reservists eligible for benefits,” they said. “We ask that you stand by those interpretations, which we outline in this letter, and which show that no additional statutory authority is necessary for you to immediately begin providing care and benefits to the C-123 veterans.”

The senators said the VA was requiring that a C-123 veteran must have injured themselves and that “his or her injury must manifest itself into a disability during the period of training.”

“This not only contradicts VA’s previous interpretations of the same statutory language, but also leads to absurd results,” they said. “For instance, a reservist who contracted Ebola while flying patients during training but shows no symptoms until they are in civilian life would not satisfy VA’s newfound interpretation.”

The senators added that Congress has told the VA to act “in the best interest” of veterans seeking benefits “whenever possible,” and they believe the VA currently has the needed statutory authority to grant benefits to the C-123 group.
“The reserve airmen who served aboard C-123 aircraft are entitled to veteran status and the resulting care and benefits necessary to address their health conditions,” they said. “As Secretary, you have the authority to make the decision that would provide these veterans the care and benefits they have earned. We ask that you do so without delay.”

The senators gave McDonald two weeks to respond to their letter.