Members of the House voted Tuesday to make permanent a court ruling that grants benefits to about 90,000 sailors who say they were exposed to toxic Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Those sailors, the so-called “Blue Water” veterans, could get a second chance to finally receive the Department of Veterans Affairs benefits they’ve been denied for decades. Last year, a similar bill to grant presumptive benefits to those veterans passed the House unanimously but ended stalled in the Senate.
The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act will “finally eliminate a 17-year barrier” that “denied access to VA benefits for the scourge of Agent Orange illnesses” and is “a long overdue justice for people who served in the Vietnam conflict,” Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said, adding that the House should “force the Senate to do the right thing and provide justice for those who served in that conflict and who are still suffering.”
“Congress has failed our Blue Water Navy veterans -- plain and simple,” said House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano. “It was unjust then and it is unjust now. But today we have an opportunity to right this wrong.
“Congress didn't find the resolve to act until 1991 and it left out key groups exposed to agent orange ... effectively denying their suffering that was a direct result of their service. This bill is the quickest and surest way to deliver benefits to these veterans.”
Veterans who served on ships in the waters off the coast during the war “must provide evidence they were actually harmed by herbicides” under current policy, unlike their comrades who served on the ground. But it’s difficult to provide proof.
Ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., served near the Korean demilitarized zone. “I’ve no way to prove where I walked 40 years ago.”
The bill follows the Federal Circuit Court decision in Procopio v. Wilkie to reverse a 1997 VA decision which denied that Blue Water veterans were exposed to Agent Orange while serving offshore of Vietnam. The court 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.