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Tester’s Agent Orange bill moves forward; Vietnam vets closer to care

A Montana veteran addresses Sen. Jon Tester during a public forum in this file photo. Tester has sponsored a measure to ensure Vietnam veterans impacted by exposure to Agent Orange qualify for VA treatment. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Tens of thousands of Vietnam war veterans are living with long-term health conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange that they sustained during their military service.

Many are being denied benefits and healthcare related to several conditions from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But thanks to persistent efforts by Sen. Jon Tester, the veterans suffering from diseases linked to exposure from Agent Orange are inching closer to receiving much needed critical care and benefits.

Tester held a press conference on Thursday with Vietnam veteran Rodney Williams and the deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Matthew Doyle, to discuss his involvement and amendment to the Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act.

After sharing Williams’ experience in Vietnam and some of his ongoing medical conditions as a result of his service, Tester added that there are tens of thousands of other veterans like Williams that deserve medical help and attention but have been denied by the VA.

“That is why I fought tirelessly for years alongside our friends over at VFW and other veteran service organizations,” Tester said during the press conference.

“And I’m proud to have waged this fight. Now, Vietnam veterans suffering from diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange are on the cusp to receive critical care and benefits that they’ve earned.”

For Matthew Doyle, Tester’s commitment to passing the bill has been invaluable.

“Senator Tester’s tireless efforts on Agent Orange have pushed this issue to the forefront and brought this legislation so close to the finish line,” Doyle said during the press conference.

One of the amendments of the bill would require the VA to expand care and benefits for veterans suffering from three different illnesses that have been linked to Agent Orange exposure.

Sen. Steve Daines also supported the measure. 

“The VFW strongly supports the addition of bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and parkinsonism to the list of conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange. The veterans suffering from these conditions desperately need care and benefits,” Doyle said.

While hard to predict what will happen in the United States Senate, Tester suspects the bill will get voted on in the very near future – perhaps today or tomorrow.

“It is time for the Senate to vote on this legislation. And quite frankly, once that is done, then it is up to this administration and the next administration to make sure this bill is implemented, assuming that the Trump administration signs this bill, which I believe they will,” he said.

However, for Tester, the fight is not over. He intends to keep pushing to extend the list of presumptive conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange.

In Tester’s view, it is necessary for the government to support these veterans living with illnesses as a result of their service. Anything else is simply inadequate.

“I think part of the deal that this country makes with the folks who serve in the military is that when they come home, you got to try to make them whole,” he said.

The passing of the bill is a long-time coming and urgent for veterans that have been unjustly denied benefits for decades.

“Quite frankly, our Vietnam veterans are getting older. They need this benefit today, not a month from now, not a year from now. They need it today,” he said.

For Rodney Williams, who suffers from hypothyroidism, it means a lot to have someone in Washington like Tester fighting for him and other veterans.

“I really appreciate the fight you’re doing for us veterans. I don’t know of anybody else up there fighting for us like you have. And I really appreciate that so much,” Williams told Tester during the press conference.

“You fight for not only veterans, but Montanans also, so just want to thank you very much for what you do.”