Target 8: Navy Vietnam veterans in Port Richey fight for benefits taken away

Susie Belanger, Special Projects Director for the Blue Water Navy Association

PORT RICHEY, Fla. (WFLA) – More than 231 members of Congress are backing efforts to reinstate benefits that the V.A. stripped from sailors who served in the waters off Vietnam.

With the stroke of a V.A. pen, Agent Orange presumptive disease benefits that Congress and President George W. Bush granted to those veterans vanished.

Susie Belanger, Special Projects Director for the Blue Water Navy Association, isn’t having that.

“Why are you discriminating against this whole class of veterans?” she asks.

From a motor coach in Port Richey, she is working Congress.

Those 231 members of the House of Representatives are now co-sponsoring a bill, HR-299, to restore the benefits.

According to Belanger, Vietnam veterans are running out of time.  They’re not in their 20s and 30s anymore.  She thinks it’s time America honors its commitment to them.

“It’s important, because they served, they promised they would defend our country at all costs, including their lives,” stated Belanger.

“These veterans were promised that they would be cared for.”

Navy veteran Tom Walden developed several health issues after he left the service.

“I’ve had my kidney taken out, renal cell carcinoma,” said Walden.  He also developed heart disease and diabetes.  He wondered why.

Walden served aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ranger in 1974.  He boarded the vessel one month after it returned from combat missions off Vietnam.

Last April, Walden caught a story on News Channel 8 about Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran Mike Kvintus.

Deck logs obtained by Target 8 show the U.S.S. Buchanan, the ship on which Kvintus served, was in Da Nang harbor on the same day the military sprayed the area with Agent Orange.

Our report cited studies that showed Navy ships turned salt water into fresh.  That distillation process didn’t eliminate Agent Orange that ended up in the water, it enhanced it.

“We drank that water, we bathed in it,” said Kvintus.

Kvintus also developed conditions linked to the toxic heribicide.

That’s when it hit Walden.

“And I go, ‘oh Lord, that’s why,'” he said. “I know the ship [U.S.S. Ranger] was contaminated.”

Next month, the House Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a legislative hearing on HR-299.  It is not any means near passing, but it is further than efforts got last year.

The major hurdle is money and how to fund it.  There is a proposal in Congress to pay for cleaning up Vietnam’s environment.  Belanger feels for the people of the Southeast Asian country, but thinks America should take care of its veterans first.

“You know, if they could change this law in 2002 with the stroke of a pen, why not correct this injustice now with the stroke of a pen?” she asked.

If you have a problem that you think needs to be investigated call our Target 8 Helpline at 1 800-338-0808 or send an email to sandrews@wfla.com.

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