More than 53 years ago, John Olsen was a 23-year-old sailor who participated in secret U.S. Navy testing of biological weapons. For many years he has had serious health problems that are very similar to those suffered by other sailors who served with him in the South Pacific while their tugboats were repeatedly sprayed with toxic agents.
Like thousands of U.S. military veterans whose duty involved work the Pentagon deems secret, Olsen, who lives in Billings, hasn’t been able to get disability benefits because the records of what contributed to his disability are still secret all these years later.
A Gazette opinion on May 29 told Gazette readers about the outrageous delay in resolving Olsen’s disability claim and legislation cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. The Gary Deloney and John Olsen Toxic Exposure Declassification Act should have become law by now, but Congress hasn’t yet acted. (Deloney was a U.S. Navy pilot who was exposed to Agent Orange while flying secret missions during the Vietnam War. He died in Kansas still waiting for records that would prove his eligibility for veterans disability benefits.)
Tester and Moran proposed that only records needed for veterans to prove their eligibility for benefits be declassified. The limited declassification for veterans’ disability benefits was included in the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2018, but not in the House version.
This huge must-pass bill has been in House-Senate conference committee for weeks. Tester, Moran and Reps. Mike Thompson, D-California, and Walter B. Jones, R-North Carolina, wrote to the chairs and ranking members of the conference committee, urging their support for the amendment that would “require the Secretary of Defense to declassify documents related to any known incident in which no fewer than 100 members of the Armed Forces were exposed to a toxic substance unless the documents would materially and immediately threaten the security of the United States.”
That is a simple, straightforward solution to this long-ignored failure to care for U.S. veterans.
As the letter said: “Service members who participated in these tests need their records to establish service-connected conditions to determine care and benefits with Veterans Affairs, and they cannot provide adequate documents because he Department of Defense has not fully disclosed them. In some instances, service members were not even told they were subject to these tests.”
Back in Billings, Olsen relies on the VA for health care, but because he can’t be certified for a service-connected disability, he is now being told he has to pay thousands of dollars in copayments to the VA.
This is an unconscionable demand, and Olsen is far from the only veteran being penalized.
“Holding the government accountable to the promises we made to our veterans is fundamental to our Democracy,” Tester told The Gazette this week. “Brave men and women like John Olsen fought to protect our freedoms and they deserve the health care and benefits they’ve earned. Doing right by our veterans isn’t a partisan issue, it is a bipartisan responsibility.”
Finally, on Thursday, Tester's office reported that the conference agreed to put the declassification provision into its bill. Now the full House and Senate should approve the legislation and send it to President Trump's desk.
On Veterans Day, members of Congress will be writing and voicing their thanks to veterans. Lawmakers should demonstrate their gratitude by removing this obstacle to the benefits veterans have earned. Pass the NDAA immediately with the declassification provision that will finally allow Olsen to get his veteran’s benefits.