Fifty years on, the Vietnam War still delivers unintended consequences.
Last week I covered a constituent meeting in Clarion arranged by U.S. Senator Bob Casey, during which a local woman was looking for help for her husband in dealing with the lingering effects of Agent Orange.
Carol Cataldo of Knox was asking for recognition that her husband, Russ Cataldo Sr., deserves help because of his exposure to Agent Orange as a member of the “Blue Water Navy” in Vietnam during 1966.
Casey had sent constituent services staff to listen to the concerns of the public, and they patiently worked through the details of her case and offered suggestions on how to proceed.
“We’ve been fighting for years for the ‘Blue Water Navy,’” said Carol. “These guys were aboard Navy ships in Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange. Our government does not recognize those who were not ‘boots on the ground.’”
Veterans who served aboard the tankers and destroyers anchored in Da Nang Harbor were exposed, and the government so far has disputed the claim.
“My husband’s ship was a destroyer, and we have proof that they were anchored only three thousand yards off the mouth of the river and provided in-line support live fire for a Marine Corps unit. His ship had the desalination plant onboard. Ships that are on the federal government Agent Orange list would pull up alongside his ship for water transfers. You can’t tell me that when they run those hoses from one ship to another — and they would pull up for supplies — that that stuff wasn’t transferred back to my husband’s ship.”
Carol and Russ have spent the last nine to 10 years trying to get the government to recognize the impact on these veterans. He served in the Navy from 1964 to 1968. He was on the USS Davis DD397 and the 1966 Vietnam Cruise.
She said he has three of the major symptoms described on the government’s Agent Orange exposure list.
“They just had hearings again in Washington, D.C., on the subject, and there was a big Australian study that said these guys were exposed. The government still won’t recognize them, and we’ve had word from insurance companies…the government is just waiting for them to die.”
Blue Water Veterans, who did not set foot in Vietnam or serve aboard ships that operated on the inland waterways of Vietnam anytime between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, must show on a factual basis that they were exposed to herbicides during military service to receive disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure. These claims are decided on a case-by-case basis.
“All of the medical evidence shows that they were exposed — all of the doctors and specialists that we have been to see say that they were. I have letters to prove it, I have deck logs, and everything, but our government refuses to acknowledge that these guys were exposed.”
Carol did praise the medical side of the VA, which she said has been fantastic.
”If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what we would do. They supply most of his medication. There are two that the VA does not supply, and, of course, they are the most expensive. That also means I have to carry supplemental insurance and pay for it because if it’s two in the morning and I have to go to the emergency room, I can’t go clear to Erie.”
More than the monetary concerns, Carol said it was a matter of principle.
“It’s the principle that our government would not recognize these guys, and they’re dying of prostate cancer, leukemia, diabetes — they’re losing their legs because of diabetes and so on, and yet the government will not compensate that. It means I have to maintain a supplemental insurance for my husband. I can’t turn over my medical completely to the VA because the hospital is too far away. I’m happy for what we have, and if I had to pay for all of the medications, we couldn’t do it. It’s the principle that our government won’t recognize these guys, and they served just as well as boots on the ground. We have tapes of the Davis firing five miles inland for the Marines.”
Carol realizes she will continue to face an uphill battle and welcomed Senator Casey’s outreach.
“I know I’m just venting, and I know I’m probably not going to get anywhere, but I’m still in there pushing. It gives me another contact. I’ve been in touch with Senator Pat Toomey’s office and got nowhere. Getting the word out there is important and saying how much these guys have been ignored for going on 50 years.”
Even though these ‘Blue Water Navy’ guys are dying like crazy without any government help, there is still hope, and there are both Senate and House bills waiting to be acted upon. For example, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017 (HR 299), a bill to restore the presumption of Agent Orange exposure to those veterans who served in the bays, harbors, and territorial seas of Vietnam, was introduced on Jan. 5 last year.