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Congress Passes Bill Expanding Benefits For Veterans Exposed To Agent Orange

U.S. Army Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange over agricultural land during the Vietnam War
U.S. Army Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange over agricultural land during the Vietnam War

Congress Friday overwhelmingly passed the nation’s immense annual defense policy bill, which President Donald Trump has threatened to veto.

This year’s version of the defense bill expands health benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

The $740-billion National Defense Authorization Act cleared the U.S Senate and House with veto-proof margins, although some Republicans could end up siding with the president in a veto showdown

According to Sen. Jon Tester’s office, about 30 percent of Montana veterans served in Vietnam and may have been affected by exposure to Agent Orange.

74-year-old Deerlodge resident Rodney Williams is one of them.

Williams served as an artilleryman attached to the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam. 

"It’s the scariest you’ll ever be in your life, I’ll tell you that. I was killing people before I was 19-years-old."

During his year-long tour he was exposed to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.

"Going through the jungle it would just be dead. It was every place I went, I guess. Whatever you touched it was on. It could even have been in the water."

Many years ago he developed hypothyroidism and thyroid cancer, conditions the national National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine linked with Agent Orange. But the conditions were not officially recognized by federal law, and in 2017 the Trump Administration demanded more research to prove the connection.

If the defense bill becomes law, it’ll be the first time Williams, along with roughly 34,000 of his fellow Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange and suffering from hypothyroidism, bladder cancer and Parkinsonism, can receive health care coverage from the federal government for those conditions.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester folded an amendment into the annual National Defense Bill adding those diseases to the Veteran Administration’s list of conditions considered linked to Agent Orange.

"If we’re going to have an all-volunteer military, I’m going to tell you, the young men and women who are thinking about signing up are looking at people like Rodney Williams and saying, ‘How did he get treated?’ and it’ll make a difference whether they sign up or not," Tester said.

Tester’s amendment was supported by Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who also voted for the full National Defense bill. 

Veterans of Foreign Wars Deputy Director Matthew Doyle says a lot of vets are angry and frustrated that it's taken the federal government so long to provide compensation for exposure to Agent Orange.

"Unfortunately sometimes the science is slow to catch up with reality. We will continue the fight in the future to ensure that all of the conditions associated with exposure are on VA’s list so that veterans can receive the care and benefits they deserve."

Hypertension, for example, is still not on the list of ailments connected to use of Agent Orange. 

Tester and Daines say they will continue to work to include hypertension.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.