By Tom Philpott
A federal appeals court has delivered a stinging defeat to “Blue Water” sailors and Coast Guard veterans of the Vietnam War who have been fighting for disability compensation from illnesses they contend resulted from shipboard exposure to deadly herbicides including Agent Orange.
A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled 2-1 on May 8 that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) acted lawfully and reasonably in 2002 when it cut off Agent Orange-related disability payments and began to deny new claims from veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam but never actually “set foot” in country.
The decision reversed a 2006 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in the case of Haas v. Nicholson. That three-judge panel unanimously rejected as “unduly restrictive” VA’s interpretation, by revised regulation, of qualifying “service” in Vietnam under the Agent Orange Act.
The U.S. military sprayed herbicides over Vietnam from 1962 through 1971 to strip away foliage under which enemy forces could hide, to destroy crops and to clear vegetation from around facilities and fire bases.
Over the last two decades, Congress and VA expanded the list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure and for which veterans can receive disability compensation.