TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – As a child, Renne Jo Villademoros played on an island she recalls “was like paradise.” But now, the daughter of a veteran is part of a toxic fight.
The Tampa resident joins thousands of others with military service connections to Guam who are pushing stalled legislation that could streamline the benefit process for veterans and family members dealing with the deadly impact of Agent Orange.
As the dioxin-laden herbicide was sprayed to kill brush near and on Naval Base Guam and Anderson Air Force Base, Villademoros was attending grade school while her father served in the Air Force.
“We played in the schoolyard all the time. For three years,” Villademoros said. “We had no idea what Agent Orange was, but we know they used it there.”
She said she began battling the first of her two bouts with cancer in 2012 about three months after her father died from the disease.
Villademoros does not mince words when asked if she believes exposure to the poison killed her father.
“Yes. Definitely,” she said. “And I have Agent Orange side effects too.”
It took legal action to force the government to expand disability benefits for Vietnam veterans who were exposed while serving on land.
Another legal fight eventually brought the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 that extended coverage for veterans who served within 12 miles off the coast of the country.
Now, Guam, where records show toxins were stored and used. While the VA has argued commercial herbicides were used on Guam instead of Agent Orange, a federal lawsuit was filed last year to potentially force Congress to act on the legislation.
Tampa Bay area resident Lonnie Kilpatrick, who suffered through cancer and heart disease after he was exposed to the herbicide in Guam, is the namesake for a bill that would create a “presumption of service-connection” between herbicides and veterans diagnosed with cancer and other diseases while serving on the island.
Guam Marine Brian Moyer knew Kilpatrick and has protested about the lack of help with the late veteran’s wife. They’re among many who are frustrated that, since 2016, two previous versions of the Central Pacific Relief Act stalled, then died in the House Veterans Affairs Committee, chaired by California Congressman Mark Takano.
“Chairman Takano, when are you going to honor your word to the Guam veterans?” Moyer asked recently. “Get this thing marked up for a full vote on the floor. That is all we want. That’s all we need. Enough delays.”
Takano has yet to respond to a request for comment.
An estimated 50,000 were potentially exposed in Guam from about 1980 back to the years of Villademoros’s childhood.
“And I wonder who is still here and who’s not,” she said. “Who’s already died of cancer?”
Congressman Gus Bilirakis, vice chairman of veterans affairs, said the process of securing sponsors for the bill from both sides of the aisle is underway.
The Tarpon Springs Republican said the monetary impact of expanding coverage could be a factor, but he added he is optimistic the resolution could make it to the house floor for a vote during the current Congress that ends next year.
John Wells, Chairman of the organization Military Veterans Advocacy and the attorney who filed the federal lawsuit involving Guam, said he expects the courts to act faster than Congress.
“We think we will hear from the court before this bill is passed,” Wells said in an email.
Wells did say he considers it positive news that the bill was subsumed into bills sponsored by Takano and Montana Senator John Tester.
“Both have passed committee but neither is ready for floor time,” Wells said.