Benefits for ‘Blue Water Navy’ vets ‘in the end zone’ despite VA opposition

Matt Saintsing
August 10, 2018 - 4:59 pm

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sean Hurt/Released

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Nearly 90,000 Vietnam vets stand to benefit as legislation to extend disability payouts to “blue water Navy” veterans works its way through Congress, in spite of strong resistance from the VA to do just that.  

At a hearing last week, VA officials pressed senators to vote against a bill that would extend VA benefits to sailors who say they were exposed to the dioxin-loaded chemical aboard ships off the coast of Vietnam, and presume their illnesses were caused by such exposure. 

“We oppose this bill because the science is not there, and we depend on science,” VA undersecretary of benefits Paul Lawrence told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We care, so we keep looking.” 

But VA’s opposition hasn’t stopped the ball from rolling and veteran advocates say the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act is on track to become law. 

VFW legislative director Carlos Fuentes said the bill is “close to the finish line.” 

Part of the urgency is couched by the fact that Vietnam veterans are an aging population, and now, four decades after they were first exposed to Agent Orange, illnesses associated with such exposure—like Lymphomas and Parkinson’s disease, are more prevalent. 

“You have folks who have been denied benefits for too long, and unfortunately, many of them are older and dying from these conditions,” said Fuentes. 
AMVETs national executive director Joe Chenelly took a more pointed shot at the VA. 

“We need to stop waiting around and allowing the federal government to wait these veterans out,” he said. “They’re waiting for them to die off.” 

Lawrence also argued that the bill would set an unwanted precedent at VA where the agency would be forced to approve benefits for illnesses without definitive proof that they were caused by their military service. 

But former VA Secretary David Shulkin previously voiced support for the bill, saying “we have to do the right thing.” 

VA officials are also concerned that the bill could rapidly increase claims for benefits, adding to the department’s already shocking backlog. Lawrence told senators that the VA would need an additional $500 million over the next decade to handle the expected wave of claims. 

There’s also the additional cost of care. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the expansion of benefits could cost as much as $1.1 billion. To offset such cost, the bill would raise fees for active duty troops and veterans who use a VA’s home loan to purchase a house. 

Despite VA’s unhelpfulness with shepherding the bill, veteran advocates are going directly to the source for a new law: Congress.

“The VA isn’t budging, so we’re going straight to the lawmakers and we’re going to make this happen,” said Chanin Nuntavong, national director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion. 

"To use a football analogy, we're in the end zone," added Fuentes. 

The bill has already been approved by the House in June with a unanimous vote of 382-0.

     Contact us about this article, or share your story at gethelp@connectingvets.com.