The House of Representatives again unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would extend Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to sailors assigned to U.S. Navy ships during the Vietnam War who have illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure.
But while eight major veterans organizations support the legislation, a few smaller groups that have fought for decades for these "Blue Water Navy" veterans to receive health care and disability compensation aren't excited about its scope.
The House voted 410-0 to advance the bill, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, or H.R. 299. Last June, the vote was 382-0 to include sailors with diseases considered to be related to exposure to the herbicide among those Vietnam veterans already receiving disability compensation and health coverage.
The measure died in the Senate in December, however, over questions about whether these veterans actually were exposed and about the cost of covering them.
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Veterans diagnosed with diseases that automatically qualify for Agent Orange-related benefits say they are ill because ship desalination units used contaminated water; the ships were also used to transport the herbicide.
In January, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of these veterans, giving them the opportunity to apply for VA benefits.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in March he would recommend against the Justice Department appealing the ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court on April 29 approved a request from the department to extend the deadline for filing an appeal to May 29.
House lawmakers said the new legislation is needed to ensure that veterans receive their benefits in the event the case, Procopio v. Wilkie, gets dragged out.
"As many of you know all too well, it has been a long, hard-fought battle to secure these benefits," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, said just before the vote. "In the process, we've let Blue Water Navy veterans and their survivors experience immeasurable pain and grief due to the spraying of 12.1 million gallons of highly toxic Agent Orange in Vietnam during the war."
"Five hundred and twenty of us are dying every day and, if we don't do something soon, there aren't going to be many of us left," said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, a Vietnam-era veteran who serves as the ranking member on the committee.
Eight veterans service organizations have thrown their support behind the bill, including some of the largest: American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS and Disabled American Veterans.
"For decades, tens of thousands of veterans, their families and survivors have been denied their earned benefits. While it is long past due, it is time that we correct the injustice done to Blue Water Navy veterans and provide protection of the Procopio decision by passing H.R. 299," leaders of the eight organizations wrote to the committee on May 13.
But several small organizations that supported Procopio and fought for the bill aren't happy with certain aspects of it. The bill includes specific grid coordinates that delineate the offshore areas offshore that would be covered.
Supporters say these grid coordinates would actually expand coverage beyond 12 nautical miles in some locations, "particularly the Mekong Delta."
But John Wells, an attorney in the Procopio case and director of Military-Veterans Advocacy, said the wording will "limit the scope of Procopio and potentially exclude tens of thousands of veterans for whom we might otherwise have been able to get coverage."
"The wording of this bill would effectively limit waters offshore to the territorial sea. ... International law says the territorial sea runs the same points that are in the bill but also leaves open waters offshore further out," he said. "I just reviewed a case today that was a mile and a half outside the covered area. If the bill passes, we can't cover them."
Wells said his organization, as well as the Blue Water Navy Association, supports the language of a bill introduced in the Senate, S. 1195, by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, that would cover the maximum amount of territory under international law.
Takano said the coordinates are in the bill to ensure that the VA doesn't narrow the scope of the coverage. "The VA has a track record of narrowly interpreting decisions to their benefit. We wanted to make sure we were very specific."
Takano and Roe said they'd like to see the bill passed before Memorial Day, May 27, 2019.
"I would urge the Senate not to wait to see what Justice decides to do," Takano said.
"We codify this in law, then [VA] has their marching orders," Roe said.