President Donald Trump signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act into law late Tuesday, a move that will fast-track disability compensation for personnel with medical conditions related to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange.
The enactment follows a decades-long fight by sailors, Marines and others who served off the coast of Vietnam. The law means they will now get the same presumption as ground troops that certain diseases are connected to Agent Orange exposure.
According to Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 90,000 veterans may be eligible for benefits under the law.
The legislation, H.R. 299, extends disability compensation to personnel who served off the coast of the Republic of Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, within 12 nautical miles of the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia, along a line of demarcation spelled out in the law.
Those eligible include veterans with one or more of the presumptive diseases whose claims were previously denied. It also includes those with new claims.
The bill also covers veterans who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone between Sept. 1, 1967, and Aug. 31, 1971, as well as children with spina bifida born to veterans who served in Thailand between January 1962 and May 1975.
While most veterans service organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and Vietnam Veterans of America, supported the bill, another group objected.
Military-Veterans Advocacy, a group that brought a lawsuit against the federal government for denying benefits to Blue Water veterans, said Wednesday that the law's wording may negatively affect up to 55,000 of the 90,000 veterans who served offshore.
John Wells, a retired Navy commander with Military-Veterans Advocacy, said the area noted in the bill may exclude some sailors whose ships were offshore, but outside the territorial seas.
"This includes a number of carrier sailors who were exposed [to Agent Orange runoff] by the surging waters of the Mekong River that discharged into the South China Sea," Wells said in a statement released Wednesday.
A legal victory earlier this year would have awarded benefits to veterans immediately, Wells argued, and wouldn't require VA to delay implementation by needing to raise funds to pay for it first.
"The battle for benefits for the Blue Water Navy should have ended with the signing of the legislation. Unfortunately it did not. We will continue to work with the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association to win benefits for every veteran exposed," Wells said.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the bill could cost as much as $1.1 billion over 10 years; the Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated the cost to be as high as $5.5 billion.
The cost of the benefits is expected to be covered by raising fees levied on non-disabled veterans for VA-supported home loans, increases of .35 to .5 of a percentage point, depending on the type of loan.
After the Senate passed the bill June 12, Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee and one of the original drafters of the legislation, said Congress has now "righted a terrible injustice."
"We can finally tell the tens of thousands of veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War but wrongly denied benefits that justice is finally coming," Takano said.