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Advocates, veterans sue to speed benefits for ‘Blue Water’ vets

Eddie Burkhalter

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Advocates for “blue water” veterans filed a federal lawsuit last week demanding action on the expansion of disability benefits that the government has said must wait until next year. 

Navy veterans who sailed off the coast of Vietnam who have for decades awaited benefits due to Agent Orange exposure will have to wait until at least January 2020, unless the court intervenes. 

“I’m so sad to report that my hubby passed away last Sunday morning from complications of Parkinson’s,” wrote the widow of a “blue water” veteran on the Blue Water Association’s Facebook page on July 31. “Every day he would ask me for an update on his appeal. My heart is breaking that he never got to see his claim resolved after waiting 13 years. Don’t give up… keeping fighting!”

A new law signed by President Donald Trump in June allows for presumptive benefits for an estimated 90,000 Navy veterans, sometimes call “blue water” vets,  who served on ships not less than 12 miles off the coast of Vietnam during the war. The VA estimates the benefits change will cost $1.1 billion over 10 years, according to the Military Times. 

Previously, the Agent Orange Act of 1991 allowed veterans exposed to Agent Orange to receive disability compensation, but in 2002, the VA limited that benefit coverage to only those who served on the ground in Vietnam or in inland waterways.  

“Blue water” veterans, as those who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam are often called, and their advocates had argued that despite their proximity to the land they still drank and cooked with the distilled seawater, swam and cleaned ships and aircraft with  the water, which was contaminated with the cancer-causing Agent Orange and other carcinogens. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in June decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a previous ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in the Alfred Procopio v. Robert Wilkie case that extended benefits to ‘blue water’ vets. 

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The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 that was signed into law on June 25 allows blue water vets to apply for health and disability benefits, but the law also allowed the VA to delay payouts until January 2020. 

That delay is needlessly putting veterans long overdue for care and compensation at risk, according to those veterans and their advocates. 

John Wells, retired Navy commander and director of the nonprofit Military Veterans Advocacy, is also the attorney representing plaintiffs in the suit against VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, filed July 22. Wells was also the attorney for the plaintiff’s in the previous case, Alfred Procopio v. Robert Wilkie, who are joined once more as plaintiffs in the new suit.  

The lawsuit filed last week asks that the court vacate the VA’s stay and begin processing claims without delay. 

“The VA must abide by the ruling in Procopio and not delay claims,” the lawsuit states.  

“Our hope is now to get an oral argument by early October,” Wells said by phone from Washington D.C. on Tuesday. 

Wells said the nonprofit Military Veterans Advocacy asked Congress to amend the law prior to its passage to address some of their concerns, but that the request fell on deaf ears. 

“So now we’re up here saying ‘We told you so,’” Wells said of his visit to the Capital to discuss the matter with lawmakers. 

Wells was joined on that trip to Washington D.C. on Tuesday by Mike Yates, head of the Blue Water Navy Association, who spent two years on the USS Bainbridge off the coast of Vietnam and is being treated for prostate cancer and hypertension. Both of those diseases are considered to be linked to Agent Orange exposure. 

“I agree 100 percent,” Yates said, speaking by phone from the Capital about concerns shared by Wells. 

Yates said that he’s hopeful they’ll win in court once again, but that even if they do the VA could reissue a stay and delay processing those benefits “just to get back at everybody.” 

“And that’s a possibility,” Wells said. 

To qualify for benefits ‘Blue water’ veterans must have one of the diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, which under federal regulations include: AL amyloidosis; Chloracne or similar acneform disease; Chronic B-cell leukemias; Diabetes mellitus Type 2; Hodgkin lymphoma, formerly known as Hodgkin’s disease; Ischemic heart disease; Multiple myeloma; and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, formerly known as Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

Other diseases included are: Parkinson’s disease; Peripheral neuropathy (early-onset); Porphyria cutanea tarda; Prostate cancer; Respiratory cancers — lung, bronchus, larynx or trachea; and soft-tissue sarcoma other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma or mesothelioma.

Veterans and their loved ones can visit the VA’s blue water vets page here for more information on how to apply for benefits, or call the VA’s toll-free number at 800-827-1000.

Click here to see the lawsuit filed July 22.

 

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