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New VA secretary 'sucker punches' Vietnam Navy veterans

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) - Sucker-punched, blind-sided and betrayed.  

Vietnam War Navy veterans claim the new head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, stabbed them in the back by promising to meet with them and instead, fired off a letter trying to kill a bill that grants them Agent Orange benefits.

Wilkie sent a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R)-Georgia claiming, "science does not support extending Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans."

"When I met with Secretary Wilkie at his confirmation hearing, he promised me a meeting on this subject," said John Wells, Executive Director of Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc.  

Instead of a face-to-face, John Wells accuses Robert Wilke of betrayal.  

Wilkie sent the letter to Isakson, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, which is now considering the legislation.  

The letter claims the bill will cost more than anticipated and create a bigger claims backlog.

According to John Wells, Wilkie is distorting the facts.

"He's come out with inaccurate and inflammatory material designed to convince Senate Chairman Johnny Isakson to not move this bill forward," Wells said.

For years, the VA opposed extending benefits to veterans who served on ships in the harbors, bays and territorial waters of Vietnam.

In June, the house unanimously passed the bill granting them benefits long denied.

Blue Water Navy veterans contend Agent Orange seeped from rivers and streams into harbors, bays and territorial waters. 

Ships unknowingly pulled in contaminated water, desalinating it for drinking, bathing and cooking.

As a result, Navy veterans contend, Agent Orange-related illnesses are crippling and killing them, yet because they did not set foot on Vietnam soil, the VA will not presume those diseases are connected to herbicide exposure.

"They're not worried about taking care of the veteran or spouse," Wells explained. 

Wells charges, Secretary Wilkie is cutting out veterans exposed to the deadly weed killer and cutting off support for their children born with impairments.

"Look, if Secretary Wilkie wanted to meet with me and say, 'I'm sorry, I don't buy this,' that's fair," said Wells.  

"But the man promised to meet with me and he refused to meet with us. He broke his promise. That to me is a betrayal."

According to Wells, despite widespread support in the senate, this bill is being stalled by one person, Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who calls himself the "Veterans' Senator."  

Isakson's Georgia office telephone number is 770-661-0999.

If you know of something that you think should be investigated, call our 8 On Your Side Helpline at 1-800 338-0808. Contact Steve Andrews at sandrews@wfla.com.


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