Blue Water Navy Supporters Pressure Isakson, Target VA Secretary's Hardline

The U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard presents the National Ensign and the U.S. Marine Corps Battle Colors during a Vietnam War pinning ceremony as a part of Marine Week, Detroit, Michigan. (Marine Corps/Robert Knapp)

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) met Tuesday with Robert Wilkie to try to coax the new VA secretary out of his department’s newly stiffened opposition to a House-passed bill that would extend VA health care and compensation to tens of thousands of former Sailors and Marines with Agent Orange-associated ailments. 

“We haven’t convinced him yet,” Brown said in a next day phone interview.

Without support from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, faces a difficult decision on whether to allow a committee vote this fall on the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 299).

“Johnny pays a lot of attention to what the VA thinks, as he should [as] chairman,” Brown said. The Ohio senator has had several conversations with Isakson on the Blue Water bill and said he “is about as fair minded and bipartisan a chairman as there is in the Senate.” But Brown declined to guess what Isakson will decide on HR 299 if the VA secretary continues to oppose the bill.

“If we get the VA onboard it will make this a lot easier, I’ll just answer it that way,” Brown said of prospects for the bill.  “Otherwise I think it will be hard.”

We tried polling all 15 senators on the committee to learn what impact VA opposition to HR 299 has had on their support for the bill. A spokesman for Isakson said only that he “is actively working” with the VA, outside stakeholders and his committee “on a path forward on this legislation.”

Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), noted they are original co-sponsors of a near identical Senate bill.  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said the bill should be passed and signed into law “without delay.” A “disappointed” Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he wrote to Wilkie, urging him to reconsider his opposition.  And Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said he still is reviewing HR 299 and working with colleagues to do “what is best” for veterans.

Meanwhile pressure on Isakson builds. Every major veterans’ group and most military associations urged him this week to move the bill out of committee. Their volley of letters responded to Wilkie’s own Sept. 6 letter to Isakson expanding on why VA opposes extending benefits to veterans who served on ships off Vietnam and have ailments associated with exposure to dioxin in Agent Orange. 

Wilkie noted again that the latest review of available scientific evidence by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), from 2011, concluded that exposure of shipboard personnel to defoliants sprayed over Vietnam “cannot reasonably be determined.”

Also, he said, Navy ships were required to draw seawater for conversion to shipboard potable water 12 miles from any river, making the presence of Agent Orange “highly unlikely” and the “dilution factor would have been significant.” 

He also criticized how the House-passed bill would pay part of the cost of expanding benefits to Blue Water vets by ending an exemption from VA home loan funding fees for certain disabled veterans, those not rated fully and permanently disabled and seeking jumbo loans. The amount of such loans can start as low $453,100, or as high as $679,650, depending local housing market prices. 

If HR 299 becomes law, Wilkie wrote, on a home loan of $500,000 “a disabled veteran could be required to pay $12,000 to the VA in funding fees (plus interest if rolled into the life of the loan) rather…$11,725 as a down payment, which results in home equity.”

Advocates for Blue Water veterans argue Wilkie and staff have fallen into a previous pattern of “cherry-picking” information from scientific reports to conclude there is no scientific basis to support extending Agent Orange-related benefits.

They also criticize a fresh VA estimate on the cost of HR 299 -- $5.5 billion over 10 years -- as wildly high, and claim VA exaggerates the impact on home-buying veterans of planned funding fee increases, particularly for disabled veterans.

Former surface warfare officer, retired Navy commander and lawyer John B. Wells, who has served as general counsel to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, considers himself the technical expert on the science and shipboard practices that, he argues, support extending Agent Orange benefits.  The Slidell, LA attorney also is executive director of a non-profit corporation that litigates and advocates for veterans, and trains other attorneys on veterans’ law.

Wells complained to Wilkie that VA staff for Blue Water issues have no naval operational experience or expertise in hydrology, thermodynamics and other relevant sciences for determining how Agent Orange reached sailors at sea.

“The VA consistently cherry picks through the (IOM) reports taking phrases out of context to support their position,” Wells wrote. A conclusion VA ignores from a 2008 IOM report is that the evidence its research committee “reviewed makes limiting Vietnam service to those who set foot on Vietnamese soil seem inappropriate.”  The same report said, he told Wilkie: “Given the available evidence, the committee recommends that members of the Blue Water Navy should not be excluded from the set of Vietnam-era veterans with presumed herbicide exposure." 

Regarding the 2011 report finding that Agent Orange exposure by Blue Water veterans "could not reasonably be determined,” it needs context, Wells said.

“What [IOM] actually said was: This lack of information makes it impossible to quantify exposures for Blue Water and Brown Water Navy sailors and, so far, for ground troops as well,” Wells wrote. Therefore, IOM couldn’t “state with certainty whether Blue Water Navy personnel were or were not exposed to Agent Orange.”

And while the IOM was told Navy ships did not typically make potable water within 12 miles of shore, Wells said it also was told that in exceptional circumstances a ship might take up water for distillation close to the coastline.

Mike Yates, national commander of Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, wrote separately to Isakson.  Among points he made was that naval gunfire support data show many ships operated within three nautical miles of the Vietnam coast for periods long enough to mandate water distillation.  Also, some Navy ships were provided potable water from barges operating from shore, a practice not known to the IOM before it produced its 2011 report.

More arguments are made in two joint letters to Isakson in mid-September. One is from The Military Coalition, a consortium 27 veterans groups and military associations, and another from veteran service organizations: Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and Paralyzed Veterans of America.  The second letter reflects a consequential shift of position.

The four large vet groups all now agree they do not support imposing new fees on any service-connected disabled veteran, even for jumbo home loans. Disabled veterans “have already paid with their service, and we therefore urge the Committee to strike this provision from HR 299 before passing the legislation.”

If the senators embrace that change, they would have to find other budget offsets to cover the cost of the bill, which VA contends already were woefully inadequate in the House bill to satisfy balanced budget law requirements.

Also, any change to HR 299 would require the bill’s return to the House to be voted on again, increasing the risk that the 115thCongress will run out of time to pass a Blue Water Navy bill.  In that case, advocates would have to restart their quest in 2019 with a mix of lawmakers significantly altered by November’s election.

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120 or email or twitter: @Military_Update.

Military Update columnist Tom Philpott
Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families. Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian.
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