WASHINGTON -- The House unanimously passed legislation Monday that would extend Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to approximately 90,000 sailors who served off the coast during the Vietnam War, some of whom have been fighting for years to prove their illnesses were caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
Lawmakers voted 382-0 in favor of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which must go to the Senate for final approval. It provides eligibility for disability compensation to "Blue Water" Navy veterans -- those sailors aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships who contend they were exposed to Agent Orange through the ships' water systems. The dioxin-laden herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson's disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.
"Every day, thousands of brave veterans who served in the Vietnam War fight the health effects of Agent Orange exposure," said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., the bill's lead sponsor. "It is far past time we pass this critical legislation and give them the comfort and care they deserve."
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the legislation would correct a "long-standing injustice."
A VA policy decision in 2002 stripped Blue Water Navy veterans of their eligibility for compensation, unless they could prove they set foot in Vietnam. Bills were introduced in 2011, 2013 and 2015 to address the problem, but progress stalled because of cost concerns.
Extending the benefits for 10 years would cost $1.1 billion, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. To make up the cost, the legislation raises fees for servicemembers and veterans who use the VA's home loan program. The increase amounts to between $2.14 and $2.95 each month.
"It has taken years of dedicated advocacy and bipartisanship to get us here today," Takano said. "Finding over $1 billion in the federal budget is not an easy task. The solution in this bill is fair."
Susie Belanger and John Wells -- both Florida residents -- were in the House gallery on Monday when lawmakers cast their votes. The two formed the group Military-Veterans Advocacy nearly eight years ago to push Congress to work for Blue Water Navy veterans.
Belanger's husband, Ernest Belanger, was a sailor who served off the coast of Vietnam. He successfully received approval for VA benefits by proving he stepped foot in the country, but the couple knew other veterans were still being denied coverage. Susie Belanger recruited Wells, an attorney and retired Navy officer, and started an emailing campaign. Now, her emails are known on Capitol Hill as "Susie-grams."
"Little by little, they all listened," Belanger said. "That's how we got this as far as we have."
Lawmakers repeatedly thanked advocates Monday who helped make the issue a priority in Congress. Valadao called Belanger out by name.
"Passage of this bill today would not be possible without Ms. Susie Belanger, who worked tirelessly to raise awareness on this issue," Valadao said.
It's uncertain when the Senate might take up the issue. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, urged the Senate to pass it.
"When I got the chairmanship a year ago, I said one of the things I'll base my chairmanship on is if we can get this solved and do the right thing," Roe said. "Today we're going to do the right thing in this House and send it to the Senate, where they will do the right thing."