After decades of trying to win disability benefits from the VA, thousands of Blue Water Vietnam veterans and others potentially exposed to toxic Agent Orange may have to wait until next year for a chance to receive those benefits.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has ordered a stay on Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans' claims until Jan. 1, 2020, according to a document obtained by Connecting Vets, effectively stalling the benefits many veterans thought they had finally gained with the passage of a recent bill.
The memorandum dated July 1 addressed to the VA undersecretary for benefits and the chairman of the VA's Board of Veterans' Appeals appears to be signed by Wilkie.
The VA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In the memo, Wilkie says the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, recently signed into law by President Donald Trump, "authorizes me to stay certain pending claims for benefits that may be affected by that Act until implementation of the statutory amendments Congress directed to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. I exercise that authority."
The Veterans Benefits Administration and Board of Veterans Appeals "are ordered to stay decisions regarding claims for disability compensation that are based on service in the offshore waters" of Vietnam beginning Jan. 9, 1962 and ending May 7, 1975, the memo reads.
The VBA and board also "are ordered to stay decisions regarding claims for disability compensation that are based on service in or near the Korean Demilitarized Zone" beginning Sept. 1, 1967 and ending Aug. 31, 1971 as well as claims for benefits for spina bifida from children of veterans allegedly exposed to toxic herbicides such as Agent Orange while serving in Thailand from Jan. 9, 1962 to May 7, 1975.
"The stays shall remain in effect until Jan. 1, 2020," Wilkie's memo said.
In a news release published less than two hours after Connecting Vets' original report, the VA said the bill "gives VA until Jan. 1, 2020 to begin deciding Blye Water Navy-related claims" and "by staying claims decisions until that date,VA is complying with the law that Congress wrote and passed."
“VA is dedicated to ensuring that all veterans receive the benefits they have earned,” Wilkie said in a statement. “We are working to ensure that we have the proper resources in place to meet the needs of our Blue Water veteran community and minimize the impact on all veterans filing for disability compensation.”
In the news release, the VA said Blue Water veterans are "encouraged" to submit their claims for conditions related to Agent Orange. Veterans 85 and older, or "with life-threatening illnesses" will have "priority in claims processing," VA said. But those claims will not be decided until 2020, according to Wilkie's order.
Veterans previously denied an Agent Orange-related presumptive condition can file a new claim under the new law, the VA said. Eligible survivors of deceased Blue Water Navy veterans can also file claims for benefits based on their veterans' service.
The law passed by Congress and signed by the president affects veterans who served on a vessel no more than 12 nautical miles seaward from the demarcation line of the waters of Vietnam and Cambodia, according to VA, about 420,000 to 560,000 Vietnam-era veterans.
John Wells, Navy veteran and executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy wrote a letter to Wilkie asking that he rescind his stay order.
"Time is of the essence ... Blue Water Navy veterans are dying every day ... These veterans have waited long enough."
Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis told Connecting Vets VFW hopes to work with VA to help Blue Water veterans before the January 2020 deadline, "especially severely ill veterans who have already been diagnosed as having one or more of the 14 presumptive illnesses associated with Agent Orange exposure."
"Vietnam veterans have been waiting a long time to either apply for benefits or to have their benefits restored," Davis said. "Congress gave VA six months to get it right the first time, instead of doing it fast but incomplete."
A list of the diseases currently linked to Agent Orange and eligible for benefits can be found here.
Veterans who want information from the VA can call 800-827-1000 or click here.