WRAL Investigates

Vietnam veteran sailors want medical benefits for Agent Orange exposure

Posted November 20, 2018 6:28 p.m. EST

Some Vietnam veterans are living in fear, others dying without benefits they say they deserve, after the government revoked medical care for thousands of veterans who say they were exposed to a more toxic version of the defoliant Agent Orange.

Veterans Affairs argues the decision was based on a lack of scientific evidence linking some veterans to Agent Orange.

But WRAL found that the reason there's little scientific evidence is the government failed to test off-shore sailors during and after the war.

Mike Bornes volunteered to serve his country during the Vietnam War, a conflict that included the defoliant linked to numerous long-term illnesses.

“I’m true blue USA all the way,” Bornes said.

But now, 50 years removed from his tour of duty, the 71-year-old former Navy Yeoman from Holly Springs said he feels his country betrayed him.

“I'm tired of having a dollar sign put on my life,” he said. “It's wrong.”

Bornes is among the thousands of so-called Blue Water Sailors who worked on supply and ammunition ships off the coast of Vietnam.

Those sailors don't qualify for medical benefits afforded to troops on the ground.

“It's wrong,” Bornes said. “It's unethical. It's unfair.”

The VA did treat them for exposure to Agent Orange for years but ended those benefits in 2002.

“They know we've been exposed,” Bornes said. “They just don't want to do it because they say they don't have the money.”

The frontline of the battle for benefits is now in Washington, D.C., where the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the VA to restore benefits. The bill is now stalled in the Senate.

“Vietnam veterans generally believe the policy of the VA when it comes to any kind of toxic exposure, especially Agent Orange, is delay, deny and wait for us to die,” said Rick Weidman, of Vietnam Veterans of America.

The point of contention is whether the troops on ships were exposed to Agent Orange.

Unlike ground troops, they weren't tested at the time.

Without those tests, the VA argues there's no proof the veterans are suffering from exposure to Agent Orange.

“We want to find ways to pay benefits, but historically, we have to say no to some folks when there's not a rational basis or the evidence is not there,” said Beth Murphy, VA compensation service director.

The VA has pointed to one study by the Institute of Medicine in which researchers "could not find enough data to determine whether or not Blue Water Navy personnel were exposed."

What the VA usually doesn't cite in the same research is the claim, “Given the lack of measurements taken during the war and the almost 40 years since the war, this will never be a matter of science but instead a matter of policy.”

“It's preposterous,” Weidman said. “It's not scientific evidence; it is simply wanting to say no.”

Bornes said priorities seemed unfair.

“They always find money to send you to war, but they never find money to treat you when you come back,” Bornes said.

He argues the ships spent months just off the Vietnam coast using treated ocean water for everyday life.

Australian researchers found the on-board filtration process didn't remove the harmful chemicals from the water. Instead, it intensified them.

“Everything you did with water, you did with that contaminated water,” Bornes said.

Another controversy is how to pay the additional benefits.

A Senate bill would tack a fee on VA mortgage loans. Opponents say it's nothing more than an additional tax on veteran homebuyers.

Supporters argue even with that fee, VA loans are much cheaper than what's available on the open market.

Bornes is now retired and tends to his model train hobby, which he calls relaxing, and to his diabetes, which causes pain and numbness in his hands and feet.

He said he's convinced his diabetes is linked to Agent Orange, but he's more concerned about his fellow sailors facing more serious health problems.

“Now that we're getting sick, we can't get the benefits that we deserve,” Bornes said. “Something is wrong.”