WASHINGTON — The fight over extending benefits to “blue water” veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam is now pitting former Veterans Affairs secretaries against each other, adding to the confusion over Congress’ next steps.
Last week, four former VA secretaries — Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson, James Peake and Bob McDonald — wrote to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee urging lawmakers not to grant presumptive illness status to roughly 90,000 blue water veterans who claim exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, saying there is insufficient proof for their cases.
“(This legislation) is based on what we believe to be inconclusive evidence to verify that these crews experience exposure to Agent Orange while their vessels were underway,” the group wrote. “We urge the committee to defer action … until such a study is completed and scientific evidence is established to expand presumptions to those at sea.”
The recommendation is in line with arguments laid out by current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie earlier this month. Department officials have argued that granting the presumptive status to veterans could upend the system by establishing new, non-scientific criteria for awarding benefits.
But advocates for the Vietnam veterans have argued that scientific proof of exposure is impossible given that proper sampling was not done decades ago, as the ships patrolled the waters around the South China Sea.
They say rare cancers and other unusual illnesses clustering among the blue water veterans should be enough to spur action from Congress.