Vietnam Vets on Ships Won Fight for Presumptive Agent Orange Status

Operations in Gulf of Tonkin, north of Vietnam, in March/April 1967 aboard the USS England (DLG 22). An SH-3 is parked on the fantail flight deck while a UH-2 picks up a traveler via sling. Navy photo

WASHINGTON—Blue Water Navy veterans who want to file disability claims related to Agent Orange exposure will have to wait until next year to have their claims processed, VA announced last month.

According to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, the delay is so that VA can have proper mechanisms in place to handle the claims, and that the influx of claims will not disrupt the disability claims process as a whole.

The memorandum from Wilkie, which orders a delay on processing through Jan. 1, 2020, has angered and disappointed veterans service organizations who have worked for decades to help Blue Water veterans—Vietnam-era veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia—gain presumption of Agent Orange exposure. The delay came less than a week after President Donald Trump signed into law legislation awarding presumptive benefits status to Blue Water veterans.

According to a statement released by VA, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act gives VA until Jan. 1 to begin deciding Blue Water Navy related claims. “By staying claims decisions until that date, VA is complying with the law that Congress wrote and passed,” it points out.

This stay applies both to claims that have yet to be filed and to those already filed at regional offices and to the Board of Veterans Appeals. In the meantime, Blue Water veterans are still encouraged to file benefits claims. According to VA, veterans older than 85 or with life-threatening illnesses will have priority. Still, however, those claims will not be processed until 2020.

This delay is the latest in a decadeslong roller-coaster of victories and defeats for Blue Water veterans and advocates—one which many thought was over with the signing of the legislation on June 26.

The Agent Orange Act of 1991 provided a presumption of Agent Orange exposure for all veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. At the time, that included Blue Water veterans. However, in 2002, VA contested that the “Republic of Vietnam” does not extend to its coastal waters. That year it began denying benefits to Blue Water veterans that were based on Agent Orange presumption. Veterans advocates have been fighting to reverse that decision ever since.

In January of this year, they succeeded. A federal circuit judge ruled in Procopio vs. Wilkie that previous VA disability regulations regarding Agent Orange presumption should incorporate Blue Water Navy veterans. This past spring, Wilkie said that he would not recommend that the government appeal the decision, and, in June, the Department of Justice announced it was dropping the case.

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