Keith Martel‘s military career crossed generations.
As a young sailor, he worked on ships for three years around Vietnam, supporting the American war during its deadliest years, 1967-1970. He joined the New York Army National Guard in 1977, and as a soldier worked 27 years as an aviation crew chief and mechanic based at Albany International Airport.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Martel was sent to the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks. Two years later, he was sent to Iraq, assigned to a dangerous resupply base in Balad that soldiers nicknamed “Mortaritaville.”
“Iraq was far worse than Vietnam,” Martel said in his North Greenbush home. “It was a lot hotter and the combatants we were after would hide in churches and among women and children.”
But the retired command sergeant major says it’s his time in Vietnam that’s caught up to him. In 2013, doctors diagnosed Martel with prostate cancer. Now 67, the Navy and Army veteran attributes the illness to repeated exposure to Agent Orange while stationed in Vietnam and along its shorelines.
He’s also fought a federal bureaucracy that denied his claim that he deserved health and disability benefits because of exposure to Agent Orange.
American forces sprayed 20 million gallons of the toxic chemicals on Vietnam between 1962 and 1970 to eliminate foliage that provided cover for the Viet Cong. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 2.6 million military personnel were exposed to the herbicide between 1965 and 1970.
About 174,000 sailors and Marines served on ships during the war. A radioman, Martel handled communications related to the refueling, rearming and repair of the 7th Fleet. Rainwater washed Agent Orange from the land into surrounding bays and harbors. The ships he worked on turned the contaminated seawater into drinking water that was ingested by crews. The desalinization process did not remove the herbicide’s toxic dioxins, and may have concentrated them, according to studies.
“The defoliate was sprayed inland, and we didn’t think we would have effects,” Martel said.
In 1991, Congress passed a law granting all Vietnam veterans with specific illnesses presumptive status for Agent Orange exposure, meaning they did not need to prove their health problems were directly service-connected to be eligible for VA medical care and disability compensation. The VA in 2002 stopped compensating offshore Navy, Air Force and others veterans who did not step foot on Vietnam soil or serve on inland waterways. “Blue Water” veterans — those who served offshore — and airmen who flew over the country but didn’t land, no longer qualify, and must prove they had direct contact with Agent Orange in Vietnam while in uniform to receive benefits. It can be a difficult threshold to overcome.
Prostate cancer is among the several presumptive diseases directly linked to Agent Orange exposure by the Institute of Medicine. Shortly after becoming ill, Martel submitted a claim to the VA for disability benefits, along with a packet of information detailing his voluminous military career. The VA rejected his claim, saying he lacked proof he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“The invisible people in offices in New York City didn’t help,” Martel said. The disability claims approval process is separate from care provided at VA hospitals, which Martel described as very good.
John Paul Rossie, a Vietnam veteran who directs the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association in Colorado, said Martel’s story is not unusual. “I talk to three to four vets daily, even guys who had boots on the ground, that the VA is denying on some technicality.”
Frustrated and ill, Martel appealed to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to obtain needed records to substantiate his claim. The senator’s office worked with the National Personnel Records Center and the VA’s New York Regional Office to obtain documentation showing Martel made trips on land while stationed aboard the USS Ajax at Vung Tau Harbor.
The VA approved Martel’s appeal in May. After years of delay, he was granted 100 percent service-connected disability benefits and compensation. “It wasn’t until Senator Gillibrand’s folks started kicking doors that I started getting some results,” Martel said.
Gillibrand and Rep. Chris Gibson of Kinderhook introduced pending legislation named The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015. It would extend presumptive coverage of Agent Orange benefits to Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Air Force and Merchant Marine veterans who served during the war on territorial seas within 12 miles of the Vietnamese coastline, with no contact with the land.
Rossie estimates the legislation would help at least 45,000 surviving vets receive disability and health care benefits they earned for diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure. He said it was common for illnesses resulting from Agent Orange exposure to stay dormant for decades.
Martel retired from the Army in 2007. He joined the New York Guard and performed homeland security tasks for the state’s volunteer military force until 2011, bringing his total years in the military to nearly 40. He’s scheduled to undergo a major medical procedure in November to try and destroy the cancer in his body. He has no regrets.
“I love the country and wore the uniform because of that,” Martel said. “I still would do it today.”