On Special Assignment: Montana veterans struggle with lasting effects of Agent Orange

Posted at 11:24 AM, May 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-31 15:02:22-04

BILLINGS – Hundreds of thousands of people, both soldiers and civilians, have been harmed by Agent Orange.

The herbicide was used by the U.S. government during the Vietnam War, to kill the existing foliage making it easier to find the enemy.

“Agent Orange remains a sad chapter among many sad chapters of the Vietnam era,” said Ed Saunders, an Army veteran who served in the Persian Gulf War. “At that time, the government told American servicemen that Agent Orange was not harmful to humans, but in time soldiers and sailors and airmen exposed to Agent Orange began to develop all manner of sickness and cancer.”

A list of various diseases and disorders make up what the VA describe as ‘presumptive illnesses’, meaning is a service member develops one of these conditions, it is presumed the cause is exposure to Agent Orange. In these cases, the veteran has a more expedited path towards coverage by the VA.

Current VA policy covers service members who were in Vietnam from January 1962 to May 1975. It covers those who were on the ground, as well as those who had brief visits ashore, or served aboard a ship that operated in the inland waterways. It also covers those who served in the Korean demilitarized zone. It does not, however, cover those who served aboard ships off the Vietnamese coast, known as Blue Water Sailors.

“The truth is that they were also exposed to Agent Orange,” said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. “It’s in the air, and so they were exposed, and so there are some issues that have come along with their health problems now some 50 years after Vietnam.”

Laurel resident Charlene Saunders knows the struggles first-hand. Her brother Peter Beatty served in the Navy off the coast of Vietnam.

Last year, Peter was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, one of the VA’s presumptive illnesses, but since he served on a ship off the coast, the family had to prove that Peter had stepped foot on Vietnamese soil for him to receive benefits.

“I do remember my brother saying that he had gotten off the ship and gone and got mail and came back,” said Saunders. “Agent Orange, I believe, is kind of a sticky substance – it’s going to stick to your shoes, your clothes, your hands. And in some manner, all of these sailors were exposed to this.”

Saunders said she believes even though her brother did step foot on land, he would have been exposed anyways. His ship, the USS King, ran rescue missions, meaning helicopters and people that had been on land were coming back to the ship and transferring the chemicals.

In Beatty’s case, the VA initially told the family they would need a photo as proof that he had been on shore. Eventually, they found out a statement would do, and after months of searching, the VA could confirm Beatty had stepped foot on Vietnamese soil during his time in the Navy.

“Just this past week the VA approved my brother’s claim, 100 percent, multiple myeloma due to Agent Orange,” said Saunders. “We’re very grateful for that. Obviously, it is still frustrating, it is still upsetting, but it’s progress and my feeling is my brother is still working for the Vietnam vets even though he passed away five months ago.”

Saunders said she said she knows how long the process can take with the VA, but the most important thing is to be an advocate for yourself or your family member. She said if you ever feel like someone is not understanding you, or is not giving you the answers you need, ask for a second opinion so nothing falls through the cracks.

Peter Beatty

Tester and his fellow Montana senator, Steve Daines, are a part of the ongoing fight. They are currently working to get legislation passed that would ensure Blue Water Sailors are covered even if they never stepped foot on land.

“There are real challenges here,” said Tester. “It does bring up the point that we do need to do more research to find out, because in fact, if it does manifest itself in the next generation we’ve got another set of problems that we need to deal with in Congress.”