After having their disability claims unjustly denied for nearly a decade, the plight of ailing Blue Water Veterans is finally receiving attention from lawmakers in Washington.
Representatives Chris Gibson (R-NY), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Tim Walz (D-MN) and Denny Rehberg (R-MT) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that would make it easier for Navy Veterans who served in Vietnam to receive compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for Agent Orange-related illnesses.
The bill is a companion to similar legislation introduced in the Senate in September by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
“Our veterans, whether they served a week ago or half-a-century ago, deserve to know that we will make good on our promise to them by preserving fundamental benefits like healthcare,” Doggett said in a statement. “This bipartisan effort to ensure that blue water Vietnam veterans are given all that they earned is a necessary step in ensuring that our obligation to our veterans does not end when they step off the battlefield.”
Agent Orange and the Vietnam War
The U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of herbicides on Vietnam during the 1960s and 70s. Although originally claimed to be safe, the herbicides, which included Agent Orange, were later found to contain the toxic chemical dioxin.
The effects of Agent Orange exposure among Veterans of the Vietnam War has long been a contentious issue. Veterans suffering from illnesses caused by the toxic chemicals have had to fight tooth and nail for every benefit.
After the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which finally forced a reluctant VA to properly compensate Vietnam Veterans for illnesses caused by herbicides, all Vietnam Veterans were presumed to have been exposed to herbicides. This presumption means that a Veteran was not required to provide proof they were exposed to Agent Orange.
Stripping Veterans of their Benefits
Unfortunately that changed in 2002 when the Department of Veterans Affairs changed its policy, limiting who would be granted presumption. The new policy determined that only Vietnam Veterans who had “boots on the ground” or Brown Water Veterans who had served in inland waterways had been exposed to the toxins.
This decision not only prevented Veterans from receiving service connection for the myriad health problems caused by the herbicides, it also allowed VA to sever benefits for Navy Veterans who had already been granted compensation for their conditions.
According to Rep. Gibson’s office, VA has denied 32,880 Agent Orange claims through 2009 due to this policy.
Finally Ending an Injustice
The time is long overdue for Congressional involvement on behalf of Blue Water Veterans. VA has continuously ignored scientific facts when it comes to Agent Orange. While the very fact that this legislation has been introduced in Congress is progress, legislators have a long way to go before Blue Water Veterans are finally granted to benefits they earned.
Before a bill can be approved or rejected by the legislature, it must be voted out of committee. It has been estimated that 90 percent of legislation introduced in Congress never makes it past committee.
It is up to our lawmakers to ensure that this bill does not simply languish in committee, and the Veterans who desperately need and deserve their help receive it.