ROSWELL, Ga. - Senator Johnny Isakson holds the key for thousands of Vietnam vets unable to get disability benefits even though they claim Agent Orange made them sick.
These are not the soldiers or Marines who fought in the jungles. They're already covered for health problems caused by the notorious herbicide. The issue involves 70,000 veterans who never set foot on Vietnamese soil, but got to within 12 miles of the coast. The so-called Blue Water Navy.
"I really believe that we were exposed," said retired Navy sonar technician Dave VanNess. "And certainly some of my shipmates more so than me."
Dave has Parkinson's Disease and prostate cancer, two of the 14 ailments associated with an ill-fated decision for which our country continues to pay.
It's known as Agent Orange. The military dumped millions of gallons of the dangerous herbicide over the jungles of Vietnam from 1962 to 1975, all aimed at denying the enemy a place to hide.
Years later, scientists realized a byproduct of Agent Orange, called dioxin, was causing chronic illnesses in Vietnam veterans. They can now get service-connected disability benefits.
But not every Vietnam vet qualifies. Not those who served off the coast. In 1973, Dave VanNess was on the destroyer USS Joseph Strauss.
“It is unfair because that Agent Orange didn't just stay on land," he explained. "There were many rivers. We know that the water from the rivers flows to the sea. It's going to carry the Agent Orange with it and it did."
Blue Water Navy supporters cite an Australian study that found Agent Orange could have contaminated the water sailors used for drinking or showering since ships used desalinated seawater for their fresh water needs.
This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to include Blue Water Navy Vietnam vets for Agent Orange benefits.
But the bill must still clear the Senate. And that's where Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson comes in.
“We're going to make sure we don't leave any stone unturned in getting the information out necessary to make an educated decision," Isakson told his Senate Veterans Affairs committee before a hearing August 1. "Our veterans deserve no better than that."
Rather than schedule a vote for the committee he chairs, Senator Isakson has only held that hearing, where representatives from the Veterans Administration took a surprising position.
“We oppose this bill because the science is not there," stressed Dr. Paul Lawrence of the V.A. Benefits Administration. "And what we do depends on science.”
According to the V.A., because sailors like Dave VanNess primarily stayed at least 12 miles off the coast per Navy policy, the odds of him getting sick from Agent Orange are minimal.
“The National Academy of Medicine reviewed all available scientific evidence, concluding that it was unable to state with certainty that Blue Water Navy personnel were or were not exposed to Agent Orange,” Dr. Lawrence testified.
But many committee members were unconvinced.
“Our Blue Water veterans who are in need of service, we shouldn't even be here talking about this," responded Senator Joe Machin, D-WVa. "I mean, I don't think they're asking for that much.”
The V.A's estimate for giving Agent Orange disability benefits to Blue Water Navy Vets: $500 million dollars over 10 years. The House bill calls for it to be paid by increasing the cost of V.A. loans another $250 for every $100,000 borrowed. Critics doubt that will be enough to cover the entire cost.
Isakson's office says because he chairs the committee he is remaining neutral in the debate. They say he hopes to schedule a vote by the end of the year.