In June, the Blue Water Veterans Act unanimously passed in the Senate. If signed by President Trump, the law will take effect at the start of 2020.
The measure affects about 90,000 veterans who served on ships during Vietnam but never stepped foot in-country. If enacted, these veterans will be presumed exposed to toxic defoliant chemicals, like Agent Orange, while serving off the southern coast of Vietnam and entitled to benefits for service-connected disabilities.
Depending on their level of disability, ‘blue water’ veterans would receive $1,200 to $1,700 in monthly compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The Act also would entitle their widows and surviving dependents to Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC). The Congressional Budget Office estimates the benefits will costs about $1.1 billion over 10 years, but VA officials insist the total is closer to $5.5 billion.
This has been yet another long, hard battle for veterans and their families – having to fight to get the benefits they rightfully deserve. Until the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, our government only linked a skin condition called chloracne to the exposure. It was otherwise hopelessly impossible for most veterans serving in Vietnam and Korea to produce evidence that would entitle them to VA benefits for their service-connected ailments. But even with its passage, only a few conditions were initially considered presumed – leaving the vast majority of veterans, their spouses and children suffering from the effects of the deadly toxins without access to benefits that were rightfully theirs.
Over the years, the VA has expanded its list of presumptive conditions connected to exposure, giving them fast track status, but in 2002, VA officials ruled that presumptive status did not apply to the ‘blue water’ veterans. As a result, these veterans had to conclusively prove their identical illnesses were a result of toxic exposure and not conditions that occurred after their military service – so their battle raged on.
In January, ‘blue water’ veterans finally secured a long-sought victory when a federal appellate court ruled 9–2 in favor of the veterans who served on ships within the 12-mile territorial sea of the Republic of Vietnam. The ruling overturned a contrary 2008 decision in Haas v. Peake.
The Procopio decision codifies that the Agent Orange Act of 1991 was intended to include ‘blue water’ veterans, stating the VA improperly interpreted the law in denying their claims. After being rejected by the Federal Circuit to put the decision on hold, the VA and the Department of Justice finally laid down its arms against veterans and opted not to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
But not everyone is happy with the impending law. Lawyers representing the ‘blue water’ veterans and their veterans’ associations argue that if enacted, thousands of veterans will be denied benefits.
The bill uses geographic coordinates to draw a line in the ocean around Vietnam. If a U.S. ship operated within that line, then the veterans aboard that ship would be eligible for disability benefits from the VA. However, there are 20,000-50,000 additional veterans who served on ships beyond the line that would not be eligible based on the new law’s criteria. John Wells, an attorney representing the veterans, argued that under Procopio, all ‘blue water’ veterans on both sides of the line had been granted coverage. Wells emphasized that the bill does not add coverage to a single veteran and proclaimed it will bring harm to veterans it was intended to help.
As this issue goes to press, it is unclear if President Trump plans to sign the bill. Reports indicate the White House has not responded to a request for comment, but one thing remains without question: our veterans should not have to battle their country to receive the benefits they have earned.
Thank you for your service.
–â€‹ Human Relations Department