Alfred Procopio Jr. left the Navy in 1967, decorated with medals for his service on the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier deployed off the coast of Vietnam. He also came home with health problems the U.S. government has linked to exposure to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange.
Procopio is one of an estimated 52,000 veterans nationwide who were stationed on ships during the Vietnam War but are not eligible for the same disability benefits as those who put boots on the ground or patrolled the country’s inland rivers.
His case, argued in December at a federal appeals court in Washington, could extend coverage for ailments associated with the infamous herbicide to a group of sailors known as the “blue water” Navy veterans.
Parallel efforts in Congress to broaden benefits have stalled in recent years.
This spring, the House unanimously approved a measure, but the Senate balked in December because of concerns about cost and demands for more scientific study.
“We do not have another year to wait. Some of our veterans will not last that long,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
The legislative and legal questions are intertwined: Did Congress intend to give these sailors the benefit of the doubt when it comes to showing their medical conditions are connected to toxic exposure?
At stake for Procopio, 73, and a leader of the veterans’ group, Mike Yates, is as much as $3,000 a month.
During the war, U.S. naval forces patrolled Vietnam’s 1,200-mile-long coastline, supplied Marines on land and provided long-range artillery support. Those stationed offshore like Procopio and Yates were referred to as the “blue water” Navy in contrast to the “brown water” sailors who operated on inland waterways.