(Senate - July 20, 2011)

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[Page S4695]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office []

                         MILCON APPROPRIATIONS

  Mrs. MURRAY. Mr. President, I come to the floor this afternoon to 
oppose the amendment offered by the Senator from Oklahoma which would 
undo decades of policies on how we treat veterans who are suffering 
from diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure. That violates the 
promise we have made to a generation of veterans. The legacy of Agent 
Orange exposure among Vietnam veterans is one of tragedy, roadblocks, 
neglect, pain, and then more roadblocks. It is the legacy of our 
military spraying millions of gallons of poisonous herbicide 
indiscriminately, without any consequences or without any 
  At the time of the Vietnam war--and for far too long after it--the 
U.S. Government neglected to track Agent Orange exposures. Then, in the 
decades following the war, our government stonewalled veterans who 
developed horrible ailments of all kinds from those exposures.
  To further compound the problem, for decades our government also 
failed to fund any research on Agent Orange and any other toxins that 
Vietnam veterans were exposed to. Those mistakes, those decades of 
neglect, have a cost. It is a cost to the veterans and their loved 
ones, a cost to the government that sent them to war, and a cost to all 
of us as Americans. It is a cost that, even in difficult budget times, 
even with our backs against the wall, we cannot walk away from.
  I am not here to question any Senator's commitment to our veterans, 
but what I am here to do is to question the standard by which this 
amendment says they should be treated. This amendment that was offered 
says we should change the standard by which we have judged Agent Orange 
cases for two decades.
  Currently, Vietnam veterans are presumed to be service-connected when 
the VA Secretary determines that a positive association exists between 
exposure to Agent Orange and a certain disease. One of the reasons 
Congress chose that mechanism is because it was impossible for these 
veterans to prove their exposure to Agent Orange caused their cancers 
or other diseases. These veterans were exposed decades ago. They don't 
know where exactly they were exposed or how much they inhaled. However, 
under the amendment of the Senator from Oklahoma, Vietnam veterans 
would be asked to now prove the impossible. They would be asked to 
prove they would never have gotten cancer or heart disease or any other 
disease or condition if not for Agent Orange.
  Vietnam veterans who have diabetes or prostate cancer or lung cancer 
or blood-borne diseases would be denied care and benefits under this 
amendment. Not only would this be a new hurdle Vietnam veterans could 
never overcome, it would change the rules midstream. It would literally 
treat Vietnam veterans whose diseases have already been presumptively 
service-connected different than those whose diseases have not yet been 
positively associated with Agent Orange exposure.
  I will not deny that compensation for exposure is a difficult issue 
and one that we continually have to look at. We have grappled with this 
issue in relation to Vietnam veterans and exposure to Agent Orange. 
Today we continue to deal with this issue as Iraq and Afghanistan 
veterans come home with illnesses potentially associated with their 
exposure to toxins released from burn pits or other environmental 
  Ultimately, we have to look at the facts with reason and compassion 
and weigh the years of our military's failure to track these exposures, 
the inevitable existence of uncertainty, and the word of our veterans. 
That is exactly what we have to do.
  On the one hand, we have thousands of veterans who have come forward 
and believe their cancers and ailments were caused by an exposure to a 
known killer. We have studies that show veterans who were exposed to 
Agent Orange are more likely to have heart disease, cancer, or other 
conditions. We have the Institute of Medicine that has recommended 
giving veterans the benefit of the doubt, and we have the Secretary of 
Veterans Affairs who has decided that we must move forward to provide 
compensation to presumptively service-connected veterans exposed to 
Agent Orange for cancer and heart disease.
  On the other hand, we may have a compelling fiscal case, but the 
Senator from Oklahoma hasn't presented one shred of evidence that Agent 
Orange does not cause heart disease, cancer, or any other condition. 
What has been presented is an amendment that asks veterans to wait, 
wait, wait until there is more scientific evidence.
  Well, these veterans have been waiting for 40 years. How much longer 
should they wait?
  The Secretary of Veterans Affairs decided that the time for waiting 
was over. I ask that we respect and support this decision, and that we 
also remember that even in the midst of this whirlwind debt and deficit 
debate, we have made a promise to veterans, one that doesn't go away.
  Vietnam veterans have paid enough for that war. They should not end 
up paying for our debt. It is us who owe them a debt.
  I yield the floor.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Alabama is recognized.
  Mr. SESSIONS. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that Senator 
Hatch and I be allowed to participate in a colloquy.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.