Forty-three years after the Vietnam War ended, tens of thousands of U.S. veterans are still fighting for benefits they earned in that conflict.
Their victory over bureaucracy was in sight in June when 382 U.S. House members agreed on a voice vote to pass H.R.299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017. David Shulkin, then secretary for Veterans Affairs, was not opposed to the bill. But as soon as Shulkin was out, VA leadership under newly appointed Secretary Robert Wilkie came out strong against this legislation that would restore benefit eligibility to U.S. Navy Veterans who served on ships in the waters off Vietnam.
In 1991, a law made all Vietnam veterans eligible for benefits to cover specific ailments related to exposure to Agent Orange. The U.S. military doused Vietnam with 20 million gallons of this toxic defoliant during the war. But in in 2002, the VA issued a rule saying that veterans had to have served on land to be eligible for Agent Orange coverage.
That rule left Navy veterans without the health and disability coverage for conditions such as Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and diabetes.
Finally in 2017, 330 members of the U.S. House — 175 Democrats and 155 Republicans — sponsored legislation specifying that when Congress said “all veterans” it meant U.S. Navy veterans, too. Reps. Greg Gianforte of Montana and Liz Cheney of Wyoming didn’t sponsor H.R.299, but they voted for it.
Blocked by Enzi
In the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, H.R.299 won the support of Republican Chairman Johnny Isakson and Democrat Ranking Member Jon Tester, but the bill never got a vote on the Senate floor.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, blocked the legislation, claiming it cost too much. They also complained that there isn’t proof that Agent Orange caused illnesses in the Blue Water Navy veterans.
Veterans’ organizations, which had negotiated a way to pay for this legislation with House leaders, pushed back against the Lee-Enzi blockage.
“What both senators have done is fail thousands of veterans — many of whom reside in their home states,” VFW National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a news release. “Their obstruction to this bill’s passage forsakes our nation’s promise to take care of those who were injured or made ill due to their military service.”
There are up to 90,000 Blue Water Navy veterans whose disability eligibility remains lost.
Tester, Daines support
A 2011 study by the National Institute of Medicine concluded that it had insufficient evidence to say whether the Blue Water Navy veterans were or weren’t affected by Agent Orange. Instead of giving these veterans the benefit of the doubt and caring for the type of illnesses and disability that the government covers in other Vietnam veterans, Lee and Enzi wanted to save money.
For senators who voted a year ago for more than $1 trillion in corporate tax cuts to suddenly go frugal on ailing Vietnam veterans is absolutely unconscionable.
There are Senate champions for the Blue Water Navy veterans. Tester, Sen. Steve Daines and three other senators held a press conference on Dec. 17 calling for passage.
“We made a promise to those veterans and we must pass our bipartisan Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act to live up to it,” Tester said.
“It’s time to make this wrong right,” Daines said.
Another speaker at the press conference was Jerry Manar, a Blue Water Navy veteran and former VFW National Veterans Services director, who recalled his Vietnam stint: “During my two years aboard, we went swimming in the water, processed it for drinking water and cooked with it. If there was dioxin in the water, we were exposed to it.”
Their pleas didn’t change the two objecting Republicans’ minds. The bill is dead now, but it should be reintroduced in the new Congress next month.
The youngest surviving Vietnam veterans are now nearing 70 years of age and many are well into their 80s. Congress must not delay to provide what these veterans are due — while they are still alive.