Kerry Drake

A bill to provide long-overdue healthcare and disability compensation to U.S. Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange

deserved unanimous congressional passage — and it almost had it.

But one U.S. senator, Wyoming’s Mike Enzi, recently stood up and said no, scuttling a two-year bipartisan effort.

Earning his stripes as Senatorial “Grinch of the Year,” he explained his opposition in terms that might make you

think he was doing sick veterans a favor.

“We owe our veterans, who have sacrificed for their country, our careful consideration of legislation that would

affect them so much,” Enzi said in a press release. “The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act is no exception. Yet the Veterans Administration continues to have serious concerns. This could impact veterans across the board. We need to carefully increase benefits.”

Right, senator. That’s why you single-handedly blocked a bipartisan bill that would help up to 90,000 Blue Water

Navy veterans receive the care they deserve after it passed the House 382-0.

It takes real intestinal fortitude to sign off on a statement that’s so divorced from the reality of one’s actions. Perhaps being able to stomach such spin is a symptom of having been in Washington too long. Or maybe it’s a side effect of prolonged exposure to the Trump administration. In Enzi’s case, I diagnose both.

Whatever the cause, his words and actions are an embarrassment to Wyoming and a disservice to our fighting men and

women.

Enzi, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, claimed he acted out of fiscal responsibility. That would be easier

to swallow if he hadn’t wholeheartedly backed a huge tax cut for corporations and the country’s richest individuals that is estimated to add at least $1.5 trillion to the national deficit over the next decade.

No, Enzi had to play deficit hawk with the lives of veterans hanging in the balance. Shame on him.

Agent Orange is a mixture of dioxin-based herbicides that the U.S. sprayed in Vietnam to destroy crops and forests

that helped conceal enemy forces. But it also has been proven to cause heart disease, respiratory cancers and Parkinson’s disease.

Veterans and their advocates fought for years to get the federal government to honor its commitment to those who

served in Vietnam and recognize their Agent-Orange related health claims. Congress finally did in 1991. But in 2002 the Veterans Administration decided to restrict disability benefits to veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam.

This left in the lurch Navy veterans who served off Vietnam, Thailand and the Korean DMZ aboard aircraft carriers,

cruisers, destroyers and other ships — “Blue Water” veterans who were also exposed to the toxic weaponry.

The way the Blue Water vets have been treated is nothing less than a national disgrace. Enzi has provided the capstone

to this unjust episode.

There’s no excuse he can offer to justify making veterans who are literally running out of time to receive help wait

until next year for the bill to be reintroduced.

The VA is also culpable in this madness. Without evidence, the agency declared that the Congressional Budget Office’s

original estimate of the bill’s cost at $1.1 billion over the next decade could balloon to $5.5 billion. The key word is “could,” there’s no evidence to show that it will. But Enzi seized on the VA’s numbers and disregarded the CBO’s calculations, then used

his power as Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee to block the bill.

Where else have we seen $5.5 billion in the news lately? Oh right, that’s roughly the same amount Trump is demanding

for his border wall — a 14th-century solution to a fabricated problem. I’m sure we’ll be hearing about the senator’s fiscal responsibility concerns for that endeavor any day now.

The cost of providing healthcare and compensating disabled Navy veterans must be offset by budget reductions elsewhere.

The House bill took care of that by nominally raising interest rates for VA home loans.

How does Enzi think our all-volunteer military is supposed to obtain more recruits when people thinking about serving

their country know beforehand that they won’t be taken care of?

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), one of the bill’s main backers in the Senate, perfectly spelled out the government’s

responsibility to veterans.

“The studies have borne out that these folks were exposed and we need to provide that benefit,” Tester said on the

Senate floor. “That’s it. It’s as simple as that. If we’re not willing to take care of our veterans when they get back home, we should not send them into places in this world where they will be exposed to toxins or get shot.”

B.J. Lawrence, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called out Wyoming’s senior senator for failing

veterans.

“My disappointment with Sen. Enzi’s obstruction is beyond measure, because what he did was fail to take care of forgotten

veterans who were exposed to toxic substances and he failed to take care of their children who sadly inherited a toxic legacy,” Lawrence said. “The VFW nor its members will forget this.”

Neither should Wyoming veterans, Wyoming citizens and all Americans.

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He lives in Casper.

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