A bill to provide long-overdue healthcare and disability compensation to U.S. Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange deserved unanimous congressional passage — and it almost had it.

But one U.S. senator, Wyoming’s Mike Enzi, recently stood up and said no, scuttling the a two-year bipartisan effort.

Earning his stripes as Senatorial “Grinch of the Year,” he explained his opposition in terms that might make you think he was doing sick veterans a favor.

“We owe our veterans, who have sacrificed for their country, our careful consideration of legislation that would affect them so much,” Enzi said in a press release. “The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act is no exception. Yet the Veterans Administration continues to have serious concerns. This could impact veterans across the board. We need to carefully increase benefits.

Right, senator. That’s why you single-handedly blocked a bipartisan bill that would help up to 90,000 Blue Water Navy veterans receive the care they deserve after it passed the House 382-0.

What on earth would you have done if you didn’t respect them so much?

It takes real intestinal fortitude to sign off on a statement that’s so divorced from the reality of one’s actions. Perhaps being able to stomach such spin is a symptom of having been in Washington too long. Or maybe it’s a side effect of prolonged exposure to the Trump administration. In Enzi’s case, I diagnose both.

Whatever the cause, his words and actions are an embarrassment to Wyoming and a disservice to our fighting men and women.

Enzi, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, claimed he acted out of fiscal responsibility. That would be easier to swallow if he hadn’t wholeheartedly backed a huge tax cut for corporations and the country’s richest individuals that is estimated to add at least $1.5 trillion to the national deficit over the next decade.

No, Enzi had to play deficit hawk with the lives of veterans hanging in the balance. Shame on him.

Agent Orange is a mixture of dioxin-based herbicides that the U.S. sprayed in Vietnam to destroy crops and forests that helped conceal enemy forces. But it also has been proven to cause heart disease, respiratory cancers and Parkinson’s disease.

Veterans and their advocates fought for years to get the federal government to honor its commitment to those who served in Vietnam and recognize their Agent-Orange related health claims. Congress finally did in 1991. But in 2002 the Veterans Administration decided to restrict disability benefits to veterans who served on the ground in Vietnam.

This left in the lurch Navy veterans who served off Vietnam, Thailand and the Korean DMZ aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships — “Blue Water” veterans who were also exposed to the toxic weaponry. House Resolution 299 was the culmination of 16 years of lobbying to get the VA to finally do right by them as well.

The way the Blue Water vets have been treated is nothing less than a national disgrace. Enzi has provided the capstone to this unjust episode.

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There’s no excuse he can offer to justify making veterans who are literally running out of time to receive help wait until next year for the bill to be reintroduced.

The VA is also culpable in this madness. Without evidence, the agency declared that the Congressional Budget Office’s original estimate of the bill’s cost at $1.1 billion over the next decade could balloon to $5.5 billion. The key word is “could,” there’s no evidence to show that it will. But Enzi seized on the VA’s numbers and disregarded the CBO’s calculations, then used his power as Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee to block the bill.

Where else have we seen $5.5 billion in the news lately? Oh right, that’s roughly the same amount Trump is demanding for his border wall — a 14th-century solution to a fabricated problem. I’m sure we’ll be hearing about the senator’s fiscal responsibility concerns for that endeavor any day now.

The cost of providing healthcare and compensating disabled Navy veterans must be offset by budget reductions elsewhere. The House bill took care of that by nominally raising interest rates for VA home loans. Phil Briggs, writing for connectingveterans.com, expressed the thoughts of many when he wrote, “I would gladly absorb a tiny fee to help my fellow veterans.”

This isn’t the first time the federal government has turned its back on veterans, but it’s one of the most egregious. Forty-three years after the Vietnam War ended, thanks to Enzi it’s still refusing to honor its obligations to military men and women.

The Senate sponsors of the House bill pressed for unanimous consensus for the measure. Without such a move there wasn’t enough time to have the bill approved before the end of the session. By blocking the legislation, Enzi has made it necessary for the time-consuming voting process to begin again after the newly elected Congress begins its work in January.

How does Enzi think our all-volunteer military is supposed to obtain more recruits when people thinking about serving their country know beforehand that they won’t be taken care of?

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), one of the bill’s main backers in the Senate, perfectly spelled out the government’s responsibility to veterans.

“The studies have borne out that these folks were exposed and we need to provide that benefit,” Tester said on the Senate floor. “That’s it. It’s as simple as that. If we’re not willing to take care of our veterans when they get back home, we should not send them into places in this world where they will be exposed to toxins or get shot.”

B.J. Lawrence, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called out Wyoming’s senior senator for failing veterans.

“My disappointment with Sen. Enzi’s obstruction is beyond measure, because what he did was fail to take care of forgotten veterans who were exposed to toxic substances and he failed to take care of their children who sadly inherited a toxic legacy,” Lawrence said. “The VFW nor its members will forget this.”

Neither should Wyoming veterans, Wyoming citizens and all Americans.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Senator Dick Blumenthal said it best in a floor speech advocating for support for H.R. 299 / S.422 … it’s “The cost to our conscience”.

    Senator Enzi (and Mike Lee) have expressed concerns over the cost … but the CBO just issued it’s latest assessment (Dec 18, 2018) stating “CBO estimates that enacting the bill would increase direct spending for those programs by almost $1.2 billion over the 2019‑2028 period.” Note : that is over a ten year period. This is consistent with its previous analysis … and not near the $5.5 billion suggested by some.

    The comparison to funding for Trump’s border wall is fair … but remember that the $5.7 billion that the House approved in its December 20th vote, is only a down payment. The House’s legislation, H.R. 7059, the ‘Build the Wall, Enforce the Law Act of 2018‘ has a cost of $23.4 billion … and that is exempt from funding from ordinarily imposed by the Pay-as-You-Go Act of 2010. In short, that means American taxpayers will be paying for it … not today in tax reform but instead just added onto the national debt.

    If your readers are interested, this stalemate is being discussed on the MN Political Roundtable in a commentary entitled “The cost to our conscience : Trump, Lee, and Enzi ignore Blue Water Vets pleas (while Blumenthal vows to carry on regardless of Trump Shutdown)” Opinions and comments are encouraged.

  2. Senator Enzi’s hypocrisy is appalling. But we all know that he sold out to big business and their big donors to facilitate the passage of the tax cuts for the one percenters. Dick Cheney said it best, deficits don’t matter.

  3. So, what branch of the military did Enzi serve? He wasn’t restricted from service because of a “bone spur” or anything like that, was he?

    Just another pathetic example of Wyoming’s congressional delegation doing their dog and pony circus act.

    They are the first ones to mouth military support platitudes, with their hands behind their backs so you can’t see their crossed fingers. I agree with Kerry’s statement: shame. Shame on them and shame on Wyoming voters who won’t call them to account.

    1. A: Enzi served 6 years in the Air Force Reserves via the Wyoming Air National Guard , from 1967-1973. He was 23 years old in 1967 , prime for military service. The more salient question might be how he avoided ‘Nam and combat experience altogether.

      Enzi was born in Bremerton WA. His father served in the US Navy there. Yup. To his credit, Enzi was an Eagle Scout. But somehow military service eluded him…

      Fast forwarding, his stonewalling of the Bluewater Vet’s agent orange legislation is a cardinal sin , IMHO. He’s got quite a few of those in his Senatorial resumé , regrettably.