The Department of Veterans Affairs will not appeal a January court ruling that ordered it to provide health care and disability benefits for 90,000 veterans who served on Navy ships during the Vietnam War, likely paving the way for "Blue Water Navy" sailors and Marines to receive Agent Orange-related compensation and VA-paid health care benefits.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Tuesday that he will recommend the Justice Department not fight the decision, handing a victory to ill former service members who fought for years to have their diseases recognized as related to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
Last year, the House unanimously passed a bill, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, to provide benefits to affected service members. But Wilkie objected, saying the science does not prove that they were exposed to Agent Orange. Veterans and their advocates had argued that the ships' distilling systems used Agent Orange-tainted seawater, exposing sailors on board to concentrated levels of dioxin.
However, the bill failed in the Senate when two Republicans, Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming and Mike Lee of Utah, said they wanted to wait for a vote pending the outcome of a current study on Agent Orange exposure.
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in January ruled that a Vietnam veteran, 73-year-old Alfred Procopio, and other Blue Water Navy veterans qualified for benefits currently given to service members stationed on the ground in Vietnam or who served on inland waterways and have diseases associated with Agent Orange.
Procopio, who served on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, suffers from prostate cancer and diabetes, illnesses presumed to be related to exposure to the toxic herbicide.
The VA has contended that any herbicide runoff from the millions of gallons sprayed in Vietnam was diluted by seawater and would not have affected offshore service members. It also objected to the cost of providing benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans for illnesses common to all aging patients, not just those exposed to Agent Orange.
The proposed Blue Water Navy Veterans act had estimated the cost of providing benefits to these veterans at $1.1 billion over 10 years. VA officials say the amount is roughly $5.5 billion.
Wilkie told members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee during a hearing on the VA's fiscal 2019 budget that the department already has started serving 51,000 Blue Water Navy veterans.
He cautioned, however, that while he is recommending the Justice Department drop the case, he "didn't know what other agencies would do."
Lawmakers praised Wilkie's announcement, urging him to ensure that the DoJ drops the case. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said it would "bring fairness" to these veterans.
"I am grateful for you in making these considerations," Blumenthal said, adding that he'd like to see the VA do more research on toxic exposures on the modern battlefield. "The potential poisons on the battlefield are one of the greatest challenges of our time."
Committee chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, also promised a hearing later this year on burn pits and other environmental exposures some troops say left them with lifelong illnesses, including cancers -- some fatal -- and respiratory diseases.
Isakson added, however, that the VA needs to care first for Blue Water Navy veterans. "If it happens, we are going to be in the process of swallowing a big bite and chewing it," he said.
The diseases considered presumptive to Agent Orange exposure, according to the VA, are AL amyloidosis, chronic B-cell leukemia, chloracne, Type 2 diabetes, Hodgkin's lymphoma, ischemic heart disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Parkinson's disease, early onset peripheral neuropathy, porphyria, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers and soft tissue sarcomas.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, in a veteran who served 90 days or more in the military is automatically considered service connected, regardless of date of service.
Editor's Note: Wilkie testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.