Our Vietnam vets deserve better medical care

By:  U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich

Two of my paramount guiding principles as your senator are respect for science and respect for those who have served our nation. We owe all of our veterans who put their lives on the line to defend us the best possible medical care, based on the best available science.

That’s why I was so appalled to learn that tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans suffering from diseases related to Agent Orange exposure have been given short shrift by President Trump’s Department of Veterans Affairs. That includes New Mexico veterans whom my office has worked with who have suffered and died from Agent Orange-related diseases the Trump administration is not allowing the VA to treat.

That is because the VA has been slow-walking adding four diseases linked by scientific studies to Agent Orange exposure – bladder cancer, Parkinsons-like symptoms, hypertension and hypothyroidism – to its Agent Orange presumptive conditions list. Recognizing these as service-connected illnesses would allow veterans to use their VA benefits to help with treatment.

In 2017, following a comprehensive report from the National Academies of Science directly linking these conditions to Agent Orange exposure, President Trump’s then-VA Secretary David Shulkin moved to make them eligible for benefits. In the years since, however, the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget has rejected this recommendation over cost.

The Trump administration’s callous efforts to deny these veterans the care they need are outrageous. I’ve been leading the effort in New Mexico to secure critical benefits for Vietnam veterans suffering from health conditions associated with their exposure to Agent Orange. And I have called on the Trump administration to stop denying scientific evidence and expand the VA’s list of medical conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange.

Unfortunately, this unfair and unscientific treatment of our veterans is not an isolated incident. President Trump has repeatedly and publicly dismissed the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries that are one of the leading causes of depression, suicidal ideation and addiction among veterans. He has placed unqualified political appointees in key positions at the VA, leading to a parade of infighting, sexual harassment and ethics scandals that have gotten in the way of the implementation of important reforms passed by Congress.

It is one thing to say that you support and care about our veterans. It is quite another to go past simple words of gratitude and do the hard work of ensuring they have the care and benefits they have earned. They deserve so much better than this.