VA denies request to cover veterans exposed to herbicides in the islands

SOIL SAMPLES: Danielle Coulombe, an environmental scientist with U.S. Navy contractor AECOM, scoops a soil sample into a plastic bag on Dec. 4, 2018, during testing for Agent Orange on Andersen Air Force Base in Yigo. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy

A new draft congressional bill promises to grant presumptive herbicide exposure status for veterans who served in Guam, American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands between 1962 and 1980 – around the time of the Vietnam War.

The bill grants the same coverage for veterans who served on Johnston Island between 1972 and 1977. 

Dubbed the Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Herbicide Relief Act, the bill is named after a U.S. Navy veteran of Guam who died after a misdiagnosis of diseases related to herbicide exposure. The Department of Veterans Affairs identifies 14 diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure.

The measure also follows the release of a report from the Government Accountability Office, which tracked shipments of Agent Orange to Vietnam. 

At least one ship carrying Agent Orange stopped at Apra Harbor en route to Vietnam more than 50 years ago, but there is no evidence that indicates the toxic cargo was offloaded on the island.

However, the report did acknowledge that Agent Orange components 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T were used on Guam in commercial herbicides. The same is stated in a 1994 Guam Land Use Plan.

Herbicide 2,4,5-T is known to contain the cancer-causing contaminant 2,3,7,8-TCDD, and was banned in the 1980s due to its toxicity.

"Most of the discussion surrounding veteran exposure has centered on tactical herbicides. The inclusion of 2,4,5-T in commercial herbicides makes this a difference without distinction. It is the exposure to 2,4,5-T and its dioxin by-product while on active duty in the armed forces, that is relevant," according to the description of the Kilpatrick Act. 

The case for Johnston Island is even clearer, according to the description. The atoll was a storage site for Agent Orange drums between 1972 and 1977 and the herbicide was disposed at sea the summer of the final year.

There is great bipartisan interest in the bill, according to attorney John Wells, a retired U.S. Navy commander turned executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc. 

Guam Del. Michael San Nicolas and Congressman Gus Bilirakis of Florida are expected to join as original sponsors for the Herbicide Relief Act, according to Brian Moyer, a Vietnam veteran and organizer for the group Agent Orange Survivors of Guam.

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