BEACON FALLS — For one local veteran, not having stood on Vietnam soil now stands in his way of being considered at risk for certain health problems.
In 1991 the Department of Veterans Affairs changed the definition of who could be considered at risk for having been exposed to Agent Orange, an herbicide used to destroy vegetation during the Vietnam War, to only those who could show proof they had “boots on the ground” during the war.
According to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reversing the decision made under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, the change affects approximately 100,000 veterans. These veterans are denied all service-connected health care from VA hospitals and disability compensation for diseases associated with Agent Orange, according to the organization’s website.
One of those veterans is Raymond Melninkaitis, 66, of Beacon Falls.
Melninkaitis, who served in the Vietnam War from 1967 through 1971 as a Petty Officer 2nd Class with the Navy, is working to raise awareness of the issue and to hopefully bring about change.
Melninkaitis, who is disabled and requires the use of oxygen, is not trying to bring about change for his own benefit.
“I’m disabled and there’s nothing that’s going to be any benefit to me any longer, but I do want to help the people I leave behind,” Melninkaitis said.
Blue Water has written a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs demanding that coverage be extended to all veterans who served in Vietnam. Melninkaitis wrote a resolution in support of the position of Blue Water.
“It is my firm belief that the citizens of the town of Beacon Falls support all service men in all military conflicts,” part of the resolution reads. “By endorsing this letter the town of Beacon Falls goes on record in stating that discrimination against any group in the Armed Forces is unacceptable. I also ask that a letter be sent to [Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric] Shinseki informing him of this endorsement.”
For Melninkaitis, the town’s support of the resolution would send a message that the town supports veterans.
“The resolution means that we have the town’s backing. It gives a little support to the letter,” Melninkaitis said. “It gives the Department of Veterans Affairs the message that we support our veterans and we think it’s wrong, and by this resolution we’re telling you that we think it’s wrong.”
On Monday, during its regular meeting, the Board of Selectmen voted to adopt the resolution.
“I consider it an honor to help Mr. Melninkaitis,” Firsts Selectman Gerard Smith said. “I think the Board of Selectmen supports all of its veterans in all wars. We’ll do what we can to bring awareness to their issues.”
According to Melninkaitis, Beacon Falls is the first town in the country to vote to support this letter.
American Legion Post 25 Commander and Iraq War veteran Bruce Carlson said the impact of the Agent Orange Act of 1991 is an important issue for Vietnam War veterans.
Although he had not been aware Melninkaitis was undertaking this resolution, Carlson felt this issue had personal implications, having been near open-pit fires and dust storms in Iraq.
“We’re still trying to figure out what we were exposed to when we were over there,” Carlson said.
Carlson spoke highly of Beacon Falls, saying the town has a good track record when it comes to its veterans.
“The town has always gone out of its way to support veterans’ issues and veterans’ causes, and this goes to reinforce their resolve to support all veterans, wherever they served,” Carlson said.
While the support of the town he has lived in since 1979 is important to him, Melninkaitis does not plan to stop there. He said he has sent a similar resolution to state Sen. Joseph Crisco (D-17) asking that the state support the letter from Blue Water.
Melninkaitis hopes the word gets out about what the town has done and inspires others to push for the same kind of resolution.
“My thoughts are that if people are aware that if Beacon Falls did this they will ask their towns to do this,” Melninkaitis said. “It’s a grassroots movement that I am trying to get to.”