An independent panel of experts has concluded that there is not enough data available to determine whether sailors who served on deep-water ships during the Vietnam War were exposed to Agent Orange, the defoliant that has been linked to cancer and other serious diseases. That conclusion, part of a 112-page report released Friday by the Institute of Medicine, makes it highly unlikely that the Department of Veterans Affairs will establish rules that would make it easier for so-called blue-water sailors to receive benefits for diseases linked to Agent Orange. A spokesman for Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, who requested the study, said the department was still reviewing the report and had no comment on Friday.
But advocates for expanding benefits for Navy veterans said they would continue pushing for legislation that would make it as easy for deep-water sailors to receive health care and disability payments for Agent Orange exposure as it is for infantrymen. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York who has sponsored legislation for the blue-water veterans, said the new report did not disprove the possibility that deep-sea sailors were sickened by Agent Orange during Vietnam. She said that as many as 800,000 service members might have been exposed to Agent Orange, even though they did not set foot in Vietnam.
“This report does not invalidate the claims of thousands of blue-water Navy veterans who are still suffering from the same illnesses as those who served ashore in Vietnam,” the senator said in a statement. Under a law passed in 1991, the government presumed that Vietnam veterans with certain diseases had been exposed to Agent Orange, and were therefore eligible for disability compensation and health care benefits. But in 2002, the Department of Veterans Affairs said that it would apply that law only to veterans who actually been to Vietnam.