House to Senate: Pass ‘Blue Water’ Navy bill already

Matt Saintsing
October 16, 2018 - 4:45 pm

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Navy

As tens of thousands of so-called “Blue Water” Navy veterans wait for Congress to act, 45 House Members are calling on the Senate to advance crucial legislation to expand much-needed care to them. 

In a letter sent to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and 44 other House lawmakers urged the Senate VA Committee chairman to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, “so that the legislation can be brought to the Senate floor as soon as possible.” 

43 House Democrats signed on to the letter, including Walz, with Reps. Walter Jones (N.C.), and Mike Bishop (Mich.) as the Republican signatories. 

“It is a very sad reality that every day of delay means there are fewer Blue Water Navy veterans who earned and deserved compensation and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) care for their illnesses,” the letter reads. 

Photo by Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA)

“As veterans’ advocates, we have all heard from frustrated veterans who say it sometimes looks to them as if the Congress and the VA are denying benefits just waiting for them to die.  Unless Congress passes this bill, it will be hard to argue against that notion.”

The House unanimously passed the bill in June, which represents “the first time these veterans saw any real progress from their government,” says Walz. 

“However, it’s extremely disappointing to see the legislation lose traction in the Senate, presumably because the Trump Administration has come out in strong opposition to the bill, not based on policy, but because it simply does not want to invest the money it would take to do right by these veterans.

The legislation would finally grant a presumption of exposure to Agent Orange for sailors who served in territorial waters off the coast of Vietnam; U.S. service members who served on-the-ground in Vietnam during the war already have that. 

 It would also allow these veterans to receive expedited care and other VA benefits if they’re suffering from illnesses connected to their exposure. 

 Some 90,000 Navy Vietnam veterans stand to benefit. 

Brian Hoffman | Dreamstime

The issue gained conflict when VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he did not support the measure due to, in part, a lack of scientific evidence. The VA argues that since there is no definitive proof that exposure to the dioxin-riddled Agent Orange has led to any identifiable diseases, there’s no reason to provide disability benefits to these vets. 

They’re suffering from cancers and other diseases common for people their age, the VA says. 

Another concern the VA has is the cost. Expanding benefits to Blue Water veterans would cost the agency nearly $7 billion over the next decade. Looking to offset that cost, the bill would increase fees on VA home loans. But VA officials say that would be unfair to the general veteran population.

“VA will continue to object and try to find roadblocks,” the House members wrote. “It is the Congress’ job to say enough is enough.” 

Agent Orange was used by the U.S. military to clear out forests, denying the enemy cover. But the chemical contains a known cancer-causing agent, dioxin. 

Sailors at the time and veterans since say the ships would use contaminated water on board and then distill it enough so service members could drink it. 

“It appears as if exposure to toxins by American service members in theatres of war will always be a reality,” says the letter. 

“As Members of Congress, our task for the future will be to take the lessons learned from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam so many decades ago, and find ways to forthrightly acknowledge the exposure, determine the service connection and then compensate service members in far less than two generations."

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