Justice decades in the making

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Blue Water Navy veteran Daniel McGrath stands next to the USS Floyd B. Parks (DD-884) in dry dock at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Calif., in 1967. He served three tours aboard the Parks off the coast of Vietnam.

Blue Water Navy Vietnam veteran exposed to Agent Orange turns to DAV for help accessing VA benefits

It’s impossible to understand the American experience of Vietnam veterans without considering the noxious chemical Agent Orange.

Many of those who returned from war bearing the physical, emotional and mental scars of war—and even those who returned seemingly unscathed—were unaware that the harmful defoliant used to clear dense jungles would stealthily wage war on their bodies in the decades to follow.

One distinct group of veterans who served in the war—Blue Water Navy veterans—has been fighting for years for the same recognition and benefits the Department of Veterans Affairs extends to U.S. service members who were exposed to Agent Orange with boots on the ground. Daniel McGrath, a DAV life member of Chapter 18 in Manchester, N.H., is one of the roughly 90,000 Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans who stood to achieve justice because of recent DAV-championed legislation that unlocked VA health care and other benefits.

McGrath enlisted in the Navy in 1964 as a way to help pay for college.

“I had a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire, but it was only good for six months,” he said. “I figured I could go into the service, and after I got out, I could go back to school by using the GI Bill.”

As a fire control technician assigned to the USS Floyd B. Parks, a Gearing-class destroyer, McGrath served three six-month tours off the coast of Vietnam. The ship’s guns fired a few times, according to McGrath, but their primary mission was to recover Air Force and Navy pilots shot down by the enemy.

“They’d go in and drop their bombs, and if surface-to-air missiles hit them, they’d ditch in the ocean, and we’d try to extract them,” said McGrath.

McGrath—far from the reaches of ground combat—was oblivious to the fact that he was regularly exposed to Agent Orange, likely through the ship’s drinking water.

McGrath and his wife, Ann, pose for a picture at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H.

DAV advocated strongly for these veterans, resulting in last year’s passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (P.L. 116–23). The legislation corrected an injustice by requiring the VA to presume Agent Orange exposure for veterans who served in eligible offshore waters between Jan. 6, 1962, and May 7, 1975. The president signed the long-awaited bill on June 25, 2019, and the VA began approving related claims in January 2020. Veterans, like McGrath, who can verify their service, are now considered eligible for disability compensation and other benefits if they have developed any of the diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure.

In McGrath’s case, those ailments include a  decades long battle with diabetes and prostate cancer, a diagnosis he received in 2010. He first applied for Agent Orange benefits in 2014 but was denied the following year based on his status as a Blue Water Navy veteran.

Years passed before McGrath felt the full consequences of the toxic herbicide. A 2013 study conducted by the Oregon Health & Science University and the VA in Portland, Ore., found that veterans exposed to Agent Orange not only are at a higher risk for prostate cancer but are also more likely to have a more threatening form of the disease.

Following the implementation of the new law, McGrath applied a second time in July of last year to receive service connection for diabetes and prostate cancer. In fall 2019, he met with Jesse Welch, a DAV national service officer and supervisor in Manchester, N.H.

“He used the wrong form, so a few months later, he came to us to get it refiled,” said Welch. “When we filed it correctly, it was granted.”

McGrath received the good news in February 2020, but to his surprise, the grant for service connection was backdated to the date of his original claim from 2014. According to Welch, the application was approved thanks to the legislation pushed by DAV.

“Blue Water Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange, like Mr. McGrath, have sought nothing more than the benefits they earned during wartime service decades ago,” said National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “The historic passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act means that tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam are able to receive VA health care, compensation and other benefits for diseases that stem from Agent Orange exposure.”

“The DAV really helped me out after all these years; that was tremendous,” McGrath added. “They’re fantastic. Especially Jesse, he’s really good.”

Under the new legislation, Blue Water Navy veterans and their survivors who submitted claims in January and February 2020 have received $140 million in retroactive benefits, according to the VA.