Sam Genco, at age 19, narrowly survived one of the United States’ worst military aircraft carrier fires. Today, 50 years later, it’s that ship’s drinking water he says could be killing him.
Genco was diagnosed last year at a North Carolina veterans’ clinic with ischemic heart disease — a common condition the federal government says is linked to Agent Orange exposure. He suffers from severely blocked arteries, cutting off the normal flow of oxygen and blood to the heart.
“It’s fatigue. Your muscles just don’t want to work. Like an engine full of sludge,” Genco said. “The engine keeps working harder but going slower.”
But the 69-year-old can’t access veterans’ disability benefits tied to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
If the federal government approved his claim, his monthly veteran’s benefit check would jump from about $1,400 to more than $3,000. Full disability benefits also have tax advantages and would improve his wife’s health care coverage. Despite no acknowledgment from the government that he was exposed to Agent Orange, Genco does get free medical treatment, like other veterans, at veterans’ clinics.
His bid for financial help is caught in a bureaucratic maze and a struggle involving widespread disagreement among experts about why he’s sick.
Genco, who lives in Pine Knoll Shores, N.C., is one of an estimated 90,000 affected “blue water Navy Vietnam veterans,” named for the open seas and harbors where they served.