When you run for office in a small state like ours, you get to meet a lot of people. One of them was Frank McGowan of Cheyenne (who asked me not to use his real name), who over a cup of coffee explained to us how he’d lost both his legs in service to our country in Vietnam.
I admit that when I met Frank, I assumed he’d suffered his injury in combat. But Frank explained to Wendy and me that it wasn’t until three decades after he returned from combat that doctors amputated both of his legs. The result of complications from contact with the herbicide containing dioxin used by our own U.S. military, commonly known as “Agent Orange.” He also told us that despite a piece of legislation designed to help veterans passed all the way back in 1991, it had taken a court order to get our government to cover his expenses.
For years, C-123s flew at low altitudes, eventually spraying an estimated 20 million gallons of Agent Orange over the jungles of Vietnam and exposing an estimated 2.8 million U.S. service personnel to dioxin. But unlike conventional combat injuries, wounds caused by dioxin would only show up decades later. Nonetheless, we know that tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans have suffered from Diabetes Type 2, heart disease, severe neurological disorders and many cancers including glioblastoma, which took the life of Senator McCain who served in Vietnam. Sadly, despite overwhelming evidence of the link between Agent Orange and their diseases, for too many of these veterans, all they received from our government was a flag.
Today, our U.S. Senate is doing to our U.S. Navy veterans, who were exposed to Agent Orange in ships off the coast of Vietnam, the same injustice once done to on-shore vets like Frank. Citing cost concerns for the estimated $225 million annual expense for treatment, Mitch McConnell and a handful of powerful senators are using procedural weapons to keep this bipartisan legislation — which passed unanimously in the House 382 to 0 — from reaching President Trump’s desk.
“If we can afford to send veterans to war,” B.J. Lawrence, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars recently said referring to these Blue Water Veterans, “it’s unacceptable that we can’t afford to take care of them when they return home wounded.”
Even though the group Military-Veterans Advocacy has been fighting on behalf of these Navy veterans since 2008, our Senate leaders argue that we need more time to study the issue and evaluate the budgetary implications. Tragically, Senator McConnell and others are okay with sending this lifesaving legislation back to the Washington bureaucracy for endless debate while, as Retired Navy Rear Admiral Christopher Cole points out, “Tens of thousands of veterans who were once the picture of health who now find themselves battling cancer as well as nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders,” and “veterans who have already given too much are stuck paying the bill. ”
How did we find ourselves in a country where our highest legislative body prioritizes lavish loopholes for hedge fund billionaires like the “carried interest deduction” which costs the U.S. Treasury an estimated $225 million every month, while failing to take care of U.S. veterans suffering from painful and debilitating injuries? In 2015 on CBS News, President Trump referred to the carried interest deduction as the equivalent of “getting away with murder, ” and truer words were never spoken to the men and women who wait for the veterans’ benefits entitled to them. Unfortunately, unlike special interests and big-money donors, our combat veterans don’t have millions of dollars for PAC contributions and personal jets to lavish on their senators in return for tax breaks.
The average Vietnam vet is 72 years old. Those suffering from Agent Orange complications have limited time left while our Senate purports to study an issue that has been before them for decades. Supporting our veterans must be more than a photo opportunity for politicians during elections and parades. If we as a nation truly support the men and woman who sacrificed while we stayed home, it must be done with action.