Syracuse (WSYR-TV) -- David Zielinski was a "Blue Water Sailor" who served at sea, never stepping foot on land.
"As soon as I turned 17, I enlisted,” Zielinski said. “We were right out in the waters outside Vietnam, protecting the waters from any ships or anything else, any enemy ships or planes coming in. We were like the protectors in the waters."
On shore, Dave's comrades faced a jungle. To clear away foliage, the military dumped millions of gallons of Agent Orange -- a chemical experts now link to several diseases. The U.S. government acknowledges that men with "boots on the ground" were likely affected. Those stationed on vessels nearby, who believe they were exposed through the air or water supply, are still fighting for equal benefits.
“As me being a Navy man, being out to sea...when we run out of water, we'd convert salt water into fresh water. We'd shower with it; we'd drink it; we'd eat it,” Zielinski continued.
At the end of his service in the 1970's, David says a dentist warned him that he'd likely lose his teeth within a few years.
"That's exactly what happened," he said. "They couldn't say why."
Today, Zielinski is battling prostate cancer. As a veteran he has health services and treatment for cancer, but says he was denied the disability benefits and financial help extended to other Vietnam veterans, who the government now presumes were exposed to agent orange.
There is no proof that Agent Orange caused Dave's disease, but as disabled vet Pat LaComb argues there is no guarantee that the chemical did not affect sailors serving on vessels nearby surrounding Vietnam.
"I think that anybody who was in Vietnam was exposed. I've seen too many people die. Unfortunately, they die before they get recognized,” said LaComb.
Zielinski says he doesn’t regret his service because he was proud to fight for his country.
“I'm doing this so that other people will be aware of it. There are 250,000 soldiers that are not getting help and I feel that they should,” Zielinski said.
Last year, a bill that would have extended benefits to Blue Water Sailors stalled in Congress. Now, a representative with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Office says she hopes to revive the bill (S1629 and HR3612)
for another shot this fall.
David Zielinski's son has established a fundraising website for his father's expenses