The Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act. The bill intended to guarantee disability benefits to 90,000 veterans is now headed to the president's desk for a signature.
The Blue Water bill already passed the House unanimously just before Memorial Day. Last year, the same bill passed the House only to stall out and die in the Senate.
The bill is just one more provision in a decades-long fight to guarantee the same benefits to thousands of Navy veterans who served in the waters offshore of Vietnam that their land and brown-water comrades are entitled to after potentially being exposed to toxic Agent Orange.
Just one week ago, the final legal battle for Blue Water Navy veterans to receive their VA disability benefits for exposure to the cancer-causing toxin appeared to be finished. The Justice Department dropped its appeal of a federal court decision from earlier this year.
Procopio v. Wilkie reversed a 1997 VA decision to deny that so-called "Blue Water" veterans were exposed to Agent Orange while serving in the waters off Vietnam. The Procopio decision ruled that the VA should presume those sailors were exposed to the toxic chemical at some point during their service, and grant them the same benefits as other Vietnam veterans.
The Supreme Court granted the DoJ several extension to appeal the lower court ruling. The extension did not prevent the VA from beginning to accept Blue Water veterans' requests for benefits, however, and Congress took steps to extend disability benefits to some of those veterans, even if DoJ appealed, through this bill.
So when DoJ said it wouldn't appeal or argue to overturn Procopio, Blue Water advocates celebrated. But while Congressional leaders applauded the legal victory, they encouraged the Senate to still pass the bill, which they said would unequivocally grant benefits to Blue Water veterans who served in the waters off Vietnam in a specific geographic area. That designation has drawn criticism from some Blue Water advocacy groups and veterans, saying it could exclude some Blue Water vets by setting geographic limits.
Though the court decision, absent DoJ's appeal, should now stand as the final word on Blue Water veterans' eligibility for disability benefits, bill sponsors Reps. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Dr. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who sponsored the original House bill, and said it was still an important step.
“Tonight, we can finally tell the tens of thousands of veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War but wrongly denied benefits that justice is finally coming," House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Takano said in a statement Wednesday. "By passing the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, Congress has proven to the nation, to our veterans and their families, and the surviving loved ones of those we lost to toxic exposure, that we have righted a terrible injustice. I want to say thank you to the Veteran Service Organizations and the countless veterans across the country who have been with us throughout this fight. Thank you for never losing hope that this country would deliver on the promise it made to our veterans. Now we call on President Trump to sign HR 299 and finally finish this fight -- these veterans have waited long enough.”
“I am thrilled that the Senate has finally followed the House's lead in passing the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act," House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Roe said in a statement. "I look forward to President Trump quickly signing this bill into law so that, after decades of waiting, these veterans will finally get the benefits they have earned.”
“We salute the entire 116th Congress for ensuring that taking care of veterans remains the most bipartisan and bicameral issue in Washington,” said VFW National Commander B.J. Lawrence. “We now urge the president to quickly sign the bill into law so that tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans can have their disability benefits restored, and well as an expansion of benefits to military dependents, veterans of the Korean DMZ, and those exposed to toxic hazards in Southwest Asia.”
Blue Water veterans previously denied Agent Orange exposure-related benefits can get help from the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 855-333-0677. For more information, click here.