U.S. Air Force planes spray the defoliant chemical Agent Orange over dense vegetation in South Vietnam in this 1966 black-and-white file photo. File/AP

A debate over the spread of Agent Orange, used as a tactical defoliant by the Americans during the Vietnam War, pits thousands of Navy veterans against the agency tasked with caring for them.

Thousands of Navy officers stationed off the coast of Vietnam during the war now say they are sick from exposure to the herbicide. VA officials argue there is not enough evidence to prove they were ever in contact with Agent Orange. There should be more evidence, VA leaders say, before Congress forces their hand and guarantees benefits to the veterans.

One Myrtle Beach resident said he was almost denied benefits for treatment for his prostate cancer because of the rule. Though Robert Taylor spent the majority of his service on board the USS Camden, he had to prove he put his boots on the ground for eight weeks at Cam Ranh Bay. He said he was initially denied benefits.

If the naval officer can prove he came on land, then he should be able to receive the benefits under current law. But Taylor said it shouldn't have mattered, because many Navy officers claim they have gotten sick from the effects of Agent Orange even though they stayed out at sea.

"I could’ve gotten it on the ship, too," he said. "Tons of them are dying, but they’re not getting any help from the VA because they didn’t put their boots on the ground."

Robert Taylor

Robert Taylor provided this photo of himself in "my personal bunker" at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Taylor served in the U.S. Navy from 1970 to 1973. Initially denied Agent Orange-related benefits, Taylor gathered his military records and reapplied. VA eventually awarded the benefits.

Between 1962 and 1971, the Air Force sprayed almost 19 million gallons of herbicides on Vietnam, part of a project called Operation Ranch Hand. At least 11 million of those gallons were Agent Orange, according to the Institute of Medicine.

The controversy begins with The Agent Orange Act of 1991, which recognized the harm the chemical caused to military veterans who fought in Vietnam. The act was written without specifying which veterans would be eligible for the benefits. 

But in 2002, VA changed the guidelines to exclude Navy personnel who had been stationed at sea. 

That would make it harder for them to claim certain disability benefits. 

Now, some legislators are trying to extend the benefits back to the "blue water Navy veterans." 

They cite one Australian study that investigated whether the soldiers could have inadvertently drunk Agent Orange-tainted water. During the war, ships would use distillation to clean marine water and make it drinkable. The Australian researchers found it was possible the distillation process would not have eliminated Agent Orange from the water. 

VA leaders argue the study is not enough to prove the Navy veterans could have become sick from the chemicals.

The U.S. House of Representative voted in favor of the bill, 382-0, in late June.

Veterans' groups are supporting the bill and criticizing VA for pushing back against it.

Robert Wilkie, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, wrote his opposition to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in early September.

Paul Lawrence, the VA's under secretary for benefits, told the senators during a hearing Aug. 1 that approving these requests could throw a wrench into the institution's process. The oft-cited Australian study was not enough to state with certainty that the Navy officers were exposed to Agent Orange, he said.

"Instead, we are left with a situation where there are no limits, and therefore no claims can be denied," he said.

Lawrence said the backlog in the VA's benefits system, already a problem, would worsen. The government awarded nearly 1.4 million Vietnam service members $24.3 billion in benefits in 2016, according to VA's annual report.

Lawrence expressed concern that the provision to pay for the bill will harm veterans who are trying to buy homes. 

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That's because money would come out of VA's popular home loan program, which allows veterans to buy homes without a down payment. VA guarantees part of the loan, which means the veterans can get a better deal. Lawrence said if the Agent Orange bill passes, it could mean fewer veterans will buy homes, or more could be exposed to predatory lenders.

North Charleston resident Loren Traxler, a Santee native, entered the service in 2002, when he was 18. By the time he left the Marine Corps after eight years, he knew the Boeing plant was coming to Charleston. So he moved back to the Lowcountry.

He rented for a while. When he decided to buy, he was able to use the VA's loan program. Traxler said he wouldn't have been able to purchase his North Charleston home without it.

Most military members live paycheck-to-paycheck, Traxler said, and don't have the money on hand for a down payment. 

"Luckily, it was there," he said.

Now, he's using the loan program again to buy a lot and build a new home.

Taylor, 65, never used the home loan program. He entered the service at 16 — a judge gave him that option after he was found guilty of breaking and entering after a party in Myrtle Beach — and served from 1970 to 1973. He made his career cutting hair, living in Charleston for a while, then back in Myrtle Beach.

He had surgery, and today is free of his prostate cancer. He found the Facebook group for the Blue Water Navy Association, which is urging its thousands of members to push the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs to advance the bill. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said during the recent hearing that veterans in his district are complaining of not receiving the benefits they feel are due.

"We’ve all had constituents who have been rejected without a fair evaluation," Manchin said. "We shouldn’t be at this level. We should’ve taken care of our veterans."

But the bill is stalling in the Senate committee; the full Senate has not taken a vote.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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