SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The U.S. Veterans Administration must honor the terms of a 1991 settlement and pay retroactive benefits to thousands of Navy veterans who served on ships off Vietnam’s coast for Agent Orange-related health problems, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
“It makes a huge difference to veterans and their families,” plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Kinnaird of the firm Paul Hastings said in a phone interview.
The VA had argued that despite a recent law and court ruling entitling so-called Blue Water Navy vets to benefits, it never intended to include them in a deal it signed three decades ago. In that consent decree, the VA vowed to automatically reconsider past denials of benefits for conditions that it later found were tied to Agent Orange and to grant retroactive benefits.
Used ubiquitously by the U.S. military to clear forested areas in Vietnam, the toxic contaminant dioxin in Agent Orange has been linked to a slew of health problems, including leukemia, lymphoma, throat cancer and many other diseases.
A few months before the consent decree was signed in 1991, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, which requires the VA to assume all veterans who “served in the Republic of Vietnam” from 1962 to 1975 were exposed to Agent Orange.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup rejected arguments that the settlement was never meant to include Blue Water Vietnam Navy vets who served on ships in Vietnam’s territorial waters but never set foot on the country’s soil or entered its inland waterways.