USS New Jersey bombarding enemy targets near Tuyho, on South Vietnam's central coast, in March 1969. A new bill seeks Agent Orange benefits for Blue Water veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam. (Navy photo)

WASHINGTON — A long sought-after bill that would make it easier for Blue Water Navy veterans to receive Agent Orange benefits has been passed by a key House of Representatives committee.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017 would extend the presumption of Agent Orange exposure to Vietnam War veterans who served on open sea ships off the shore of Vietnam during that conflict.

The bill was approved by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last month but must pass the full House and Senate before it can be sent to President Donald Trump for signature.

Rep. Phil Roe, MD, (R-TN) chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, called the bill “long overdue.” He said the nations owes “the brave veterans who served offshore during the Vietnam War to provide compensation benefits for conditions they may have developed because of exposure to Agent Orange.”

“Unfortunately, too much time has passed for us to know with certainty what the effects of herbicides were on veterans who served in the territorial seas of Vietnam,” Rowe added, pointing out that he has “been contacted routinely by Blue Water Navy veterans who are suffering from diseases associated with Agent Orange.”

Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) gave Roe credit for moving the bill forward, saying the chairman “doggedly” sought to find a way to assure care for Blue Water Navy veterans. The “legislation is yet another example of the good we can accomplish when we work together on a bipartisan basis with veterans service organizations and reach across the aisle,” Walz emphasized.

Agent Orange Effects

Currently, if veterans served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 and have a disease that has been associated with exposure to Agent Orange, they are automatically presumed to have been exposed to the herbicide and, therefore, qualify for disability compensation related to the condition.

The VA does not include Blue Water veterans in the presumption for the list of Agent Orange related-conditions, however, with the exception of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The agency has maintained there is not enough evidence of harm to include veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam.

Despite that, veterans groups have long sought recognition for Blue Water veterans and expressed disappointment last year when legislation addressing the issue failed to make it out of committee. Efforts to extend the benefits have been stymied by the approximate $1 billion price tag, as lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to pay for it.

Roe said they found a bipartisan fix in the new bill by raising some fees for VA’s home loan program, adding, “I am so pleased to sit here today and tell you that I think we are finally going to be able to move this bill out of committee.”

Korean DMZ

Among other provisions in the bill is that veterans exposed to Agent Orange along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) will have an earlier start date. It also allows the VA secretary to “provide to any child of a veteran” who served in Thailand who is suffering from spina bifida “the health care, vocational training and rehabilitation, and monetary allowance” already required to be paid to children of Vietnam and Korean DMZ veterans with the disease.

The then-Institute of Medicine found in a 1996 report that there is limited or suggestive evidence of an association between exposure to herbicides used in Vietnam and spina bifida in children of veterans.

VA also must report to Congress on the findings of the follow-up study of a National Cohort of Gulf War and Gulf Era Veterans.

The bill has the support of several veterans’ groups.

“This legislation is long overdue, but there are no statutes of limitation when it comes to making things right for veterans. Let’s get this bill passed and signed into law,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Keith Harmon.

Meanwhile, organizations were urging its members to contact their House and Senate representatives to support the legislation.

“Now is the time to contact your representative and senators to ask them to support these bills,” the Fleet Reserve Association said on its website.