Decades after Vietnam, ‘Blue Water’ sailors still fighting for VA benefits

Matt Saintsing
September 20, 2018 - 2:14 pm

Courtesy of National Archives

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Major veterans organizations are strongly urging Congress to send a bill to the White House that would expand VA benefits to tens of thousands of Navy veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam. 

“Blue Water” Navy veterans, those who served in ships near Vietnam, have fought for decades to receive VA benefits due to their potential exposure to the toxic chemical weapon Agent Orange. 

The leadership of Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the American Legion, and Paralyzed Veterans of America wrote to the heads of the Senate VA Committee calling on them to hold a vote on the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2018

“With our aging Blue Water Navy veterans continuing to suffer and die from illnesses that have already been legally and scientifically linked to Agent Orange exposure, Congress must finally provide them long-delayed justice by voting to pass H.R. 299 this year," the groups said. 

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

While the Agent Orange Act of 1991 established a presumption of exposure for those who served on the ground in Vietnam, some 90,000 Navy vets are left out from receiving that same benefit. That presumption is vital for Vietnam vets to receive disability or care if he or she has an illness sparked by their Agent Orange exposure. 

The letter calls for the Senate to quickly vote "as soon as possible" on the bill, which was unanimously passed by the House in June. The legislation, the groups argue, would correct an “erroneous decision” made by the VA in 2002 that bars Blue Water Navy vets from benefits. 

 But the VA is pushing back. 

Photo by Mark Wilson/ Sipa USA

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sent a letter of his own to the Senate VA committee calling on them to contemplate the evidence and effect this legislation would have.  

“We know that it is incredibly difficult to hear from Blue Water veterans who are ailing and ill, and we have great empathy and compassion for these veterans and their families,” wrote Wilkie. “However, we urge the committee to consider the scientific evidence, impact on other veterans and costs associated with this legislation.”

Wilkie’s letter is the latest barrier these vets face in their pursuit to claim their health has suffered due to exposure of Agent Orange.

Last month, VA undersecretary for benefits Paul Lawrence told a Congressional panel “the science is not there (when it comes to Blue Water Navy veterans), and what we do depends on science.” 

But supporters of the bill have previously forgone trying to convince the VA and instead are lobbying Congress to expand benefits. 

“The VA isn’t budging, so we’re going straight to the lawmakers, and we’re going to make this happen,” Chanin Nuntavong, national director of veteran’s affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion told Connecting Vets in August. 

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