Michael Yates says the first side effects from his exposure to toxic Agent Orange appeared four years after he was discharged from the Navy in 1972, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid.
Then in 2014 his doctors found he had prostate cancer.
The 69-year-old Las Vegas resident, who has no family history of cancer, this week finally got some good medical news related to his military service: He and thousands of other veterans who served at sea during the Vietnam War can apply for VA benefits related to their exposure to the toxic defoliant.
A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled Tuesday that the Department of Veterans Affairs, improperly denied veterans benefits to approximately roughly 50,000 veterans who served offshore and didn’t meet the government’s “foot-on-land requirement.”
“This corrects a long-term injustice,” said attorney and Navy veteran John Wells. “We don’t know at this point what the VA is going to do. We do feel a petition to the Supreme Court (is possible), but we think we will prevail.”
Nathanial Miller, chief of the support services division for the VA’s Reno office, said officials there have received no guidance from the national headquarters since the decision.
The 9-to-2 decision reversed a previous ruling 10 years ago that upheld the denial of benefits.
‘We wanted to be seen’
Yates is executive director of the national Blue Water Navy Association, which was instrumental in appealing the case.
Though attorneys for the veteran who appealed worked pro bono, his group shouldered the court fees and supply costs associated in this case.
He and other members also traveled to Washington, D.C., in December and attended every day of arguments, proudly wearing their Blue Water Navy badges in the courtroom.
“We wanted to be seen,” he said. “And the judges looked at us to see our reactions (when opposing counsel was arguing the case).”
Yates served on the destroyer USS Bainbridge and made multiple deployments to Vietnam, he said. He said he knows of at least 10 other Las Vegas area veterans who suffer from ailments stemming from exposure to Agent Orange, which was widely used as a defoliant in Vietnam.
Among them is Terry Wescoatt, 69, who served as a third-class machinist on the destroyer USS Hanson and was deployed to Vietnam twice before leaving the service in 1972.
Wescoatt was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, and said he didn’t connect it with Agent Orange until many years later.
Studies highlighted in the decision show that the sailors were exposed to the herbicide through contaminated water funneled into ships’ distillation systems and used for cleaning, drinking and laundry.
“We drank in it, bathed in it, cooked food in it. You name it, we did it,” Wescoatt said. “But the VA denied me because I had ‘no boots on the ground.’”
In the years since his exposure, Yates has also developed lung and heart problems. He said when he started to get treatment, his co-payments were over $2,500 a year.
At 64, he had to get a full-time job at UPS to cover the cost of his medical payments. Even so, he owes about $1,800 for his health care. Twenty percent of his Social Security check each month is garnished to make those payments, he said Thursday.
“I’m 69,” Yates said. “I should be home, retired.”
“We were asked to go do a job and serve our country, and we were promised at that time they would take care of us if we did this,” he said. “The VA ended up turning our back on us, just because we were out in the water.”
Follow-up legislation sought
Those like Yates and Wescoatt who served at sea are known as “blue water” Navy veterans, and the court majority ruled that Congress explicitly intended to extend benefits to those who were stationed in the territorial seas around the then-divided Southeast Asian nation.
The two dissenting judges expressed reluctance to overturn the court’s previous decision, stating it was the job of Congress to determine the benefits and that the addition of the Navy veterans would be a “significant cost.”
Yates and other veterans groups are lobbying for a bill this year to broaden the benefits to cover blue water Navy veterans and those who served in demilitarized zones in Korea and Thailand during specific time periods around the war. Previous attempts in recent years have stalled, but they hope the court decision will breathe new life into the effort.
The ruling does not solve all the veterans’ financial woes.
Those who already had their claims closed by the VA will not be repaid for their medical expenses they incurred, said Wells, one of the attorneys who argued the case.
He is hopeful of getting a bill reintroduced in Congress to reopen claims that were previously denied. He also will argue for inclusion of families that have been left destitute after a servicemember whose claim was denied died from one of the many illnesses associated with exposure to Agent Orange.
He said he also plans to continue to fight for veterans benefits for servicemembers exposed to toxic chemicals during other conflicts, including in Guam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea.
“This is not the end, this is the beginning,” Wells said. “They’ve given their life to this country, and many of them are dying because of that. Most say they already know they’re going to die, and that’s OK. We need to take care of their families. And that’s what we’re going to do.”