(Washington, D.C.)–Today, the US Department of Veterans Affairs turned their back on reservists who suffer from disabilities as a result of their exposure on contaminated C-123 aircraft following the Vietnam War. Despite their legal authority to grant disability compensation to these reservists, the agency went against its own binding legal opinions and instead asked Congress to pass legislation. The US Department of Veterans Affairs has taken the stance that these reservists do not qualify as “veterans” under 38 U.S.C. § 101 (2) and (24).Vietnam Veterans of America denounced the policy. “Vietnam Veterans of America calls upon VA Secretary Bob McDonald to overturn the erroneous legal opinions of the VA Central Office attorneys and immediately grant these beleaguered veterans their overdue benefits, effective from the date they filed their first claim,” said John Rowan, National President of VVA.
“Since we have defeated the VA on its claim of junk science, now they are throwing junk law at us to prevent justice to those harmed by their exposure on these contaminated aircraft. The VA’s position is unconscionable. These men and women worked, slept, and ate in toxic planes for years. Waiting for congressional action on this issue is an affront to these elderly, dying reservists,” said Rowan. Today’s announcement came after an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report in January 2015 concluded that exposure to these re-used C-123 aircraft put approximately 1,500-2,100 personnel and reservists at greater risk of adverse health consequences. After the IOM report, the agency faced mounting pressure to formally change its policy towards this group of reservists whose claims have been denied for decades. In February 2015, six senators, including the top-ranking Democrat on the Committee on Veterans Affairs, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, sent an open letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, urging the administration to give these reservists the compensation they deserve.
“The Secretary has the statutory authority, supported by agency-binding legal opinions issued by the VA Office of General Counsel, to immediately grant these reservists service-connected disability as a result of their exposure to Agent Orange,” said former Marine Rory Minnis, a law student intern in the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, which represents VVA. “The Secretary is hiding behind his lawyers, who are blocking relief to these deserving veterans because they themselves disapprove of the binding legal opinions issued by their office.”