‘Blue Water’ veterans fighting for benefits get second chance in Congress

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Photo credit Photo courtesy of courtney.house.gov

Decades after Vietnam, “Blue Water” sailors are still fighting for VA benefits.

The tens of thousands of so-called “Blue Water” Navy Vietnam veterans who served on ships during the war, exposing themselves to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange have been left fighting for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

At a legislative hearing in the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, House Committee on Veterans Affairs chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., presented an updated version of a bill to grant those benefits.

A previous version of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act was unanimously passed in the House but stalled in the Senate when Sen, Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. and several other senators objected.  

“On this bill, many of us have been made aware of the potential cost growth and the budgetary and operational pressures that would happen at the VA,” Enzi said on the floor last year. “They’re having a lot of problems, anyway."

It was the first bill Takano and ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., introduced this session.

The bill follows the Federal Circuit Court decision in Procopio v.Wilkie to reverse a 1997 VA decision to deny that Blue Water veterans were exposed to Agent Orange while serving offshore of Vietnam. The new decision means the VA should presume that veterans who served in the waters off the coast were exposed to Agent Orange at some point during their service.

The Supreme Court earlier this month granted the Department of Justice a 30-day extension to appeal the lower court ruling to grant the benefits to Blue Water veterans. 

Navy veteran and executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy John Wells said the DoJ's extension does not prevent Congress from drafting legislation to give Blue Water veterans benefits and does not stop the VA from beginning to accept veterans' benefits cases based solely on the court ruling. 

“We need to ensure Blue Water veterans are protected in the event Procopio is appealed to the Supreme Court and overturned,” Takano said at the hearing. “That is why Congress worked together with Veteran Service Organizations to establish, without a doubt, that Blue Water Navy veterans are entitled to this presumption.”

“VA should accept service in the waters surrounding the Republic of Vietnam for the Agent Orange presumption, just as VA does for boots on the ground service,” Roe said at the hearing, adding that he believes passing the bill is necessary “to ensure that those veterans who were potentially exposed to Agent Orange in the waters offshore of the Republic of Vietnam are guaranteed entitlement to the presumption.”

The VA did not send a representative to testify on the Blue Water bill, Takano said, though someone was sent to testify about the other bills on the hearing agenda. 

"I would like to make it clear that the (VA) was asked to send a witness who could testify on its plans for implementing Blue Water," Takano said at the hearing. "To achieve the best results for veterans, we must have their cooperation going forward.  It is regrettable that they are not providing this information to Congress since it is our obligation to oversee their plans for the implementation of what is now the law of the land."  

VA spokesman Randy Noller told Connecting Vets the VA had people available to speak about the other bills on the agenda, but not the Blue Water bill. 

"The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 was received after the other bills on the agenda, which provided less than the allotted time for VA and the administration to provided official views at the hearing," Noller said in an emailed statement. "However, regarding this particular legislation, because the administration is still considering its legal options relative to the Procopio case, and the final decision regarding that case would dictate the administration views, VA did not have any views to offer on this legislation and respectfully declined to answer any questions regarding the legislation."  

The new bill is similar to the one the House passed last session and includes “crucial ‘geocoordinates’ that clarify the territory off the coast of Vietnam that VA must recognize when deciding claims for disability compensation for herbicide-related diseases,” Takano said.

The bill not only includes extending the presumption of Agent Orange exposure to Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans, but would also extend to “veterans who served in or near the Korean DMZ beginning on Sept. 1, 1967” Roe said, along with providing benefits for children of Thailand veterans exposed to Agent  Orange, addressing concerns of Thailand and Gulf War veterans about potential toxic exposure during service and make improvements to the VA’s home loan program.

“This proposal is the quickest and clearest route to delivering benefits to these deserving veterans,” Takano said.

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