Washington, DC – U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Steve Daines (R-MT) today urged Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie to reverse his recent decision to delay benefits to Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans by another six months. This delay comes even after President Trump signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act into law last month, guaranteeing sailors who were exposed to Agent Orange while serving off the Vietnamese Coast would have access to benefits they have already waited years for.
“This is a disheartening and unnecessary action,” Senators Gillibrand and Daines wrote. “There is nothing left to do besides processing the claims, and we strongly urge the VA to do so as quickly as possible. Delaying these benefits for another six months without specific and valid cause only adds insult to these veterans, many of whom have been waiting for these benefits for seventeen years.”
Gillibrand and Daines have been the leading the push in the Senate for years to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which President Trump signed into law last month. Gillibrand has long championed the fight to ensure Blue Water veterans get the health and disability benefits they earned. She led the Senate version of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which she first introduced in 2009. Gillibrand and Daines’ bill had the support of 57 additional Senators. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act passed the House by a vote of 410-0 in May 2019 and by a voice vote in the Senate on June 12, 2019.
The U.S. military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam during the Vietnam War to remove jungle foliage. This toxic chemical had devastating health effects on millions serving in Vietnam. Congress passed a law in 1991 requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide presumptive coverage to all Vietnam veterans with illnesses that the Institute of Medicine has directly linked to Agent Orange exposure, including those who were stationed on ships off the Vietnamese coast, also known as Blue Water Navy veterans. However, in 2002, the VA decided that it would only cover veterans who could prove that they had orders for “boots on the ground” during the Vietnam War. The VA’s exclusion prevented thousands of sailors from receiving benefits even though they had significant Agent Orange exposure from drinking and bathing in contaminated water just offshore.
In January 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned a sixteen-year-old VA policy that denied benefits to thousands of Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. However, Congressional action was still needed to guarantee all Blue Water veterans would receive care. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act will also ensure that those exposed while serving in Korea and the children of those service members exposed in Thailand who were born with spina bifida can also receive benefits.
The text of the letter may be found here and below:
The Honorable Robert L. Wilkie
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20420
Dear Secretary Wilkie:
We write to express opposition to your recent decision to delay benefits by another six months to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans. This is a disheartening and unnecessary action, and we urge you to reverse the decision and provide benefits to eligible Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans without further delay.
As you know Congress unanimously passed legislation providing benefits consistent with the Procopio decision. Many of the 14,500 Blue Water Veteran claims have already been submitted to the VA over the years, and the VA has already identified this population once in order to deny the claims. There is nothing left to do besides processing the claims, and we strongly urge the VA to do so as quickly as possible. Delaying these benefits for another six months without specific and valid cause only adds insult to these veterans, many of whom have been waiting for these benefits for seventeen years.
In short, it is time to provide these veterans, and their families, with the benefits they have been denied for too long. Thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to your timely response.