Nearly a half-century after returning home from Vietnam, thousands of U.S. service men and women are still fighting for benefits to help treat illnesses associated with exposure to the chemical Agent Orange. Matt Hunter has more on a renewed push to give them the care they've been seeking.
ALBANY, N.Y. – 38 years after Joe Drabick arrived in Vietnam as a boilerman on a U.S. Navy ship, the Hudson native says he's one of thousands of service men and women still battling the effects from exposure to the harmful chemical Agent Orange.
"I suffer from diabetes, neuropathy, arthritis, respiratory ailments," said Drabick, who added 42 of his shipmates have died from other illnesses, including various forms of cancer. "You could feel the slime and see the oil slick on the water. We made our drinking water and our boiling water from that water."
Drabick, who spoke at an Albany event Monday hosted by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, is one of thousands of Navy sailors not eligible to receive medical benefits associated with Agent Orange exposure due to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs current rules that limit access to military members who were on the ground in Vietnam or on its rivers.
"I was told you didn't get shot, you didn't lose a limb so you don't meet our profile," Drabick said.
"Because of this arbitrary and bureaucratic rule, thousands of our Navy veterans are suffering,” Gillibrand said. “It's time to right this wrong."
Along with Reps. Chris Gibson and Paul Tonko, Gillibrand is pushing for passage of the Blue Water Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015, which would expand coverage to sailors who served on boats as far away as 12 miles off Vietnam's coast.
"Everything they did was around this water that was riddled with Agent Orange and so, they were exposed just as someone on the ground was," Gillibrand said.
"We estimate there's up to 75,000 more sailors out there that should be getting these kind of coverage," Gibson said.
Past efforts to enact similar legislation have stalled largely due to the estimated cost, but a recent Congressional Budget Office scoring has reduced the price from north of $240 million to roughly $100 million per year.
"We think that figure is going to come down so it's going to work in our favor," said Gibson, who’s sponsoring the partner bill in the House after introducing similar legislation during each of his two prior terms.
Believing they now have the momentum to steer the legislation through Congress all the way to the president's desk, Drabick and fellow vets are hopeful they'll get the assistance they need before it's too late.
"It's not about me, it's about my brothers," Drabick said.