Group Sues over Delay in Processing Benefit Claims for Blue Water Navy Vets

A U.S. Huey helicopter sprays Agent Orange over Vietnam. The U.S. military used at least 11 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam from 1961 to 1972. Wikimedia Commons
A U.S. Huey helicopter sprays Agent Orange over Vietnam. The U.S. military used at least 11 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam from 1961 to 1972. Wikimedia Commons

A legal organization serving veterans has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs over its decision to defer claims adjudications for "Blue Water Navy" Vietnam vets until Jan. 1, 2020, or later.

Military-Veterans Advocacy, led by retired Navy Cmdr. John Wells, filed a suit Monday in the Federal Court of Appeals requesting that the VA be required to rescind the stay.

VA officials have said the delay is needed to ensure that employees are prepared to process the influx of claims. Wells, whose organization sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie earlier this month asking him to immediately begin processing claims, called the delay "unconscionable."

"There are myriad reasons why this stay is unlawful," Wells said in a news release. "We are asking the court to intercede and allow these claims to proceed in accordance with federal law and with the Procopio v. Wilkie decision handed down by the court earlier this year."

Wells, who served as an attorney in the Procopio case, has expressed concern that the area spelled out in the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, along a specific demarcation line, may exclude veterans who served on large vessels such as aircraft carriers that never sailed into the designated zone.

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He argues that service members who worked on these ships and have illnesses linked to exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides must be included among those eligible to file claims.

The Federal Appeals Court earlier this year ruled in favor of a plaintiff who served on board the carrier Intrepid and has diabetes and prostate cancer -- two diseases eligible for disability compensation and benefits for Vietnam veterans from the VA.

Multiple veterans service organizations, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and Vietnam Veterans of America, supported the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which was signed by President Donald Trump on June 25.

Wells' group wrote Wilkie earlier this month asking him to begin processing claims immediately. Wells said the secretary did not respond.

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.

Wells estimates the number to be no more than 90,000 veterans.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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