Amid the growing movement to seek justice for veterans who are afflicted with diseases presumably linked to Agent Orange, Guam Delegate Michael San Nicolas and Florida Rep. Gus Bilirakis on Thursday introduced a bill aimed to better facilitate the veterans' benefit claims.
H.R. 1713 would grant “presumptive herbicide exposure status” to U.S. service members who served on Guam and American Samoa between 1962 and 1980.
“The historical data is conclusive that extremely harmful levels of dioxin were present and service members were undoubtedly exposed,” San Nicolas said in filing the legislation, dubbed “The Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Relief Act,” in honor of a Navy veteran stationed on Guam who died of cancer due to herbicide exposure.
“The environment was also impacted, with saturation levels prolonging exposures on a regular basis. The harm is undeniable, and the need for justice equally so,” San Nicolas said.
Kilpatrick died in May last year, barely weeks after winning his long battle against the Department of Veterans Affairs’ denial of his Agent Orange claims. In April 2018, the department eventually reversed its previous order and awarded his benefits, retroactive to 2010.
In his death bed, “Make it count” were his last words that have become the slogan for the Agent Orange justice movement.
“This bill is named in honor of my friend and constituent, Lonnie Kilpatrick, who sadly passed away from an illness related to Agent Orange exposure during his service in Guam. I don’t want to see other families continue to suffer the way Lonnie’s has,” Bilirakis said.
The bipartisan bill was co-sponsored by American Samoa Rep. Aumua Radewagen and New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. It would apply to veterans who served on Guam and American Samoa between Jan. 9, 1962 and July 31, 1980, or Johnston Atoll between Jan. 9, 1962 and July 31, 1980.
The bill came on the heels of the U.S. Court of Appeals’ recent ruling in favor of 73-year-old Navy veteran Alfred Procopio Jr., who served aboard ships stationed in Vietnam's territorial waters off the coast.
The appeals court declared Procopio and the estimated 90,000 "Blue Water" Navy veterans of the Vietnam War qualified for aid, which previously had been denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs, on account of "presumptive exposure" to Agent Orange.
The ruling reinforces the Department of Veterans Affairs’ adoption of the final rule governing veterans presumed to have been exposed to certain herbicides.
“Specifically, VA expanded the regulation to include an additional group consisting of individuals who performed service in the Air Force or Air Force Reserve under circumstances in which they had regular and repeated contact with C-123 aircraft known to have been used to spray an herbicide agent (“Agent Orange”) during the Vietnam era,” states the rule, which was initially published in the Federal Register on June 19, 2015 and officially adopted as “final” on Oct. 22, 2018.
“In addition, the regulation established a presumption that members of this group who later develop an Agent Orange presumptive condition were disabled during the relevant period of service, thus establishing that service as ‘active military, naval, or air service.”
The final rule applies to “any claim for service connection for an Agent Orange presumptive condition filed by a covered individual that was pending on or after June 19, 2015.”
The military consistently denied Agent Orange was used on Guam, despite accounts from several veterans who were stationed on island during the Vietnam War.
In a report released on Nov. 15, 2015, the Government Accountability Office said its investigation found at least one ship carrying Agent Orange stopped at Apra Harbor on its way to Vietnam. However, GAO said, no record exists showing that any cargo actually landed on Guam.
“Available shipment documentation indicates that nearly all of the Agent Orange procured was either used in U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia, used for testing, damaged, or destroyed,” GAO said.
Despite the clashing government reports and court decisions related to Agent Orange outside of Vietnam, authors of the Lonnie Kilpatrick bill hope to eliminate the gray areas that hinder the veterans’ claims.
“A great many U.S. veterans live in the Pacific islands, and in American Samoa. We’re proud of our people’s high enlistment rate,” Amata said. “Through this legislation, our country keeps the national commitment to Veterans, and recognizes the dangers and long-term health risks they faced.”
At the Guam Legislature, Sen. Therese M. Terlaje introduced a resolution in support of The Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Herbicide Relief Act, which she said would “correct injustice, clarify the eligibility of affected veterans, and expedite the processing of veteran claims of health conditions caused by Agent Orange exposure.”
“I want to thank Guam Delegate San Nicolas and Florida Representative Bilirakis for introducing this bill in Congress on behalf of the veterans who served in Guam,” Terlaje said.
“I am also deeply grateful for the advocacy of the Agent Orange Survivors of Guam Veterans’ group and the Military-Veteran Advocacy, Inc., who were instrumental in getting this legislation introduced. Their pursuit of justice for Mr. Kilpatrick, our veterans and the people of Guam is admirable and greatly appreciated,” she added.