The Department of Veterans Affairs said this week it will begin processing "Blue Water Navy" veterans' claims for Agent Orange-related diseases on Jan. 1. But advocates say the six-month delay will harm sick veterans who already have waited years for benefits.
VA officials said Monday they are "preparing to process" Agent Orange exposure claims for veterans who served offshore during the Vietnam War from Jan. 9, 1962, to May 7, 1975, and those who served in the Korean demilitarized zone between Sept. 1, 1967, and Aug. 31, 1971. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act that passed last month and goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020, gives the VA until that date to start deciding claims.
But a veterans' legal organization has written VA Secretary Robert Wilkie protesting the stay and asking him to reconsider.
The group, Military-Veterans Advocacy, had been urging some veterans -- those who served on ships stationed farther out to sea than the 12 nautical miles stipulated in the bill -- to file claims before Jan. 1 so they may receive consideration under a more liberal judicial ruling on a Blue Water Navy case handed down earlier this year.
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"I am sure that you understand, time is of the essence in this matter," wrote retired Navy Cmdr. John Wells, Military-Veterans Advocacy executive director, to Wilkie on Monday. "Veterans are dying every day."
According to a VA news release, the department estimates that 420,000 to 560,000 people may be considered "Blue Water Navy" veterans.
Wilkie said the stay on decisions until Jan. 1 is needed to "minimize the impact on all veterans filing for disability compensation."
"We are working to ensure that we have the proper resources in place to meet the needs of our Blue Water veteran community," he said in a statement.
Mike Yates, commander of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, said the delay is just another example of the department betraying these former service members.
" 'Minimize the impact on all veterans filing for disability' -- to me he is saying, 'Just so we don't impact other veterans, we are just going to delay the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans. After all, they are used to it,' " Yates said. "This never should have happened."
Under the new law, service members assigned to Navy ships that supported operations in Vietnam may be eligible for disability compensation if they have a disease listed by the VA as linked to herbicide exposure.
Millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides were used during the war in Vietnam and elsewhere to strip the landscape of foliage that enemy combatants used for cover.
Veterans who served offshore have argued they were exposed to the defoliants during transport, by maintaining and operating aircraft that supported ground operations and through runoff that entered ships' desalination plants.
But until the bill was signed into law June 25, these veterans were not included among Vietnam veterans who have diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure and receive disability benefits from the VA as a result.
VA officials argue that the new law allows the department to wait until Jan. 1, 2020, to start deciding claims. Wells said that, even though the law doesn't go into effect until then, it doesn't mean the VA should stop considering claims from the Blue Water veterans, which his group estimates number roughly 90,000.
The VA is encouraging Blue Water Navy veterans with conditions presumed to be related to Agent Orange exposure to file a disability claim. Veterans who have had claims denied, as well as survivors of deceased affected veterans, also should file claims, according to the VA.
Veterans over age 85 or who have a life-threatening illness will have priority in the process, officials added.
Veterans with questions regarding eligibility should consult the VA's website.