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Relief for Vietnam vets included in final defense bill
Legislation passes House with veto-proof majority
defense bill
Turlock Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander Lyle Ducheneaux was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2015 as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. - photo by Photo Contributed
Vietnam veterans suffering from bladder cancer, Parkinsonism or hypothyroidism as a result of their service may soon be entitled to benefits after a measure authored by Rep. Josh Harder was included in the final defense bill passed by the House on Tuesday.

The final version of the National Defense Authorization Act was published Dec. 2 and includes Harder’s “Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act,” which will make certain care and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs available for those who were exposed to Agent Orange during military service and have developed any of the three conditions as a result.

“This is an incredible day for veterans who have waited decades to get the care they deserve – Congress has spent years paying lip-service to vets, but thanks to our bipartisan efforts we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Harder said in a statement when the final text was released.

Harder introduced The Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act earlier this year, and it passed as an amendment to the Senate version of the annual must-pass defense bill. To become law, the final version must pass both chambers of Congress as-is and then be signed into law. On Tuesday evening, the House passed the $741 billion measure with a veto-proof majority, 335-78, and defied a threat President Donald Trump had made earlier in the day.

Trump threatened to veto the bill unless Congress repeals part of the communications code which shields Twitter, Facebook and others from content liability — a threat that would sabotage the massive, bipartisan defense bill which hasn’t failed in 60 years.

Trump has also complained about the inclusion of a provision which would establish a commission to study renaming bases named for Confederate officials, and warned House Republicans against voting in favor of the defense bill in a tweet on Tuesday.

“I hope House Republicans will vote against the very weak National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which I will VETO. Must include a termination of Section 230 (for National Security purposes), preserve our National Monuments, & allow for 5G & troop reductions in foreign lands!” the President wrote on Twitter.

Senator Jon Tester, who sponsored the Senate version of the measure, urged the President to approve the bill in a statement released last week, noting it would provide benefits to more than 34,000 Vietnam veterans suffering from illness caused by Agent Orange.

“...It’s my hope that both the House and Senate can quickly move this bill to the President, and that he signs it into law without any delay. These Vietnam veterans have already waited long enough,” Tester said.

The Senate still needs to approve the bill as-is before it can be sent to Trump to be signed, and Harder hopes the President will rethink his opposition of the bill given its bipartisan support.

“The good news is that the vote we got tonight is veto-proof, so hopefully folks will continue to have that backbone if the President decides to (veto),” Harder told the Journal following Tuesday’s vote. “I’m very hopeful he’ll back down now that he sees so much support for this legislation.”

Harder said it was “humbling” to see his bill included in the NDAA which was overwhelmingly approved by Democrats and Republicans alike. He has personal ties to his Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act, as his grandfather, who served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam, died from complications caused by Agent Orange at age 52.

“I barely got to know my grandfather because his life was cut so short,” Harder said.

From 1962 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed herbicides over Vietnam to strip the thick jungle canopy that could conceal opposition forces, to destroy crops that those forces might depend on and to clear tall grasses and bushes from the perimeters of U.S. base camps and outlying fire-support bases. Researchers have since found limited and suggestive evidence linking Agent Orange to bladder cancer, Parkinsonism and hypothyroidism found in those who served in Vietnam.

The measure would benefit veterans like Hilmar resident and Turlock VFW Post 5059 Commander Lyle Ducheneaux. Though it’s been over 40 years since he served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, the effects of his service follow Ducheneaux to this day after being diagnosed with bladder cancer, in addition to heart problems, in 2015.

As a machinist mate aboard the USS Blue Ridge from 1974 to 1979, Ducheneaux was directly exposed to Agent Orange through his duties of desalinating seawater for drinking and shower use on the boat. He said himself and others he worked alongside during that time have all developed conditions associated with Agent Orange.

Ducheneaux has previously applied for compensation and benefits from the VA but was rejected.

“It’s a damn shame that a person goes out there and puts their life on the line and they do all of this stuff for God and country, and then virtually just get shit on and put in a back corner,” Ducheneaux said.

He is in remission now, but has relapsed twice in years past and advocates for other veterans who may be eligible for benefits after suffering from conditions brought on by Agent Orange. In August, he spoke at a virtual event hosted by Harder and veterans organizations which served as a final push to get the measure included in the final defense bill.

“Unless my cancer comes back, the bill won’t impact my life at all but it sure will help a lot of other vets,” Ducheneaux said. “If they come through with this and work it to where the veterans can get the medical portion and the compensation, it’s not going to cure them but it’s sure going to make their life a hell of a lot easier.”

Harder anticipates the same bipartisan majority when the Senate votes on the NDAA this week — and with it, support for Vietnam veterans which he believes is long overdue

“There's a feeling that Vietnam vets never got really thanked for their service...Even beyond the concrete changes in health benefits and medical benefits and spousal benefits, I think this really showcases that the country has turned a corner on recognizing their service,” Harder said. “...They deserve that debt paid.”