Thousands of veterans already waiting for years for their disability benefits will have to wait a few months longer after Veterans Affairs officials announced they won’t start processing “blue water” Vietnam veterans claims until next year.
In an announcement late last week, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the delay is designed to “ensure that we have the proper resources in place to meet the needs of our Blue Water Veteran community and minimize the impact on all veterans filing for disability compensation.”
But some advocates call the move another disappointing delay for aging, infirm veterans who have already waited decades for the benefits they believe they deserve.
“Time is of the essence in this matter. Blue Water Navy Veterans are dying every day,” John Wells, retired Navy commander and the executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy, wrote in a letter to Wilkie Monday morning. “These veterans have waited long enough.”
At issue is a new law signed by President Donald Trump last month (and passed without objection by the House and Senate) which awarded presumptive benefits status to Navy veterans who served in the waters off Vietnam during the war there five decades ago. Trump touted the bill in a call with veterans last month as a major victory for the veterans community and the country.
Under previous VA rules, service members who were stationed on the ground or on ships near the coast were presumed to have had exposure to Agent Orange and other carcinogenic herbicides, and given simplified filing status for their disability claims later in life.
But because of scientific disputes over the level of exposure to those toxic chemicals in the seas around Vietnam, the so-called “blue water” veterans were not granted the same preferential status by VA, and were required to provide specific proof that their illnesses later in life were related to their military service.
Many veterans said that created an impossible standard, since little water monitoring was done at the time. The different standards meant that Vietnam veterans with identical illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure — ailments like prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and serious respiratory illnesses — could receive starkly different disability benefits.
In January, a federal appeals court ruled against VA, saying the department had interpreted the existing statue incorrectly and must start awarding the presumptive benefits status to the “blue water” veterans.
Lawmakers responded by codifying the decision in legislation that also awarded certain presumptive benefits to troops who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and to children of herbicide-exposed Thailand veterans born with spina bifida.
But the legislation contained language allowing the department to delay payouts until next January, even though officials have begun processing some in the wake of the court decision. House and Senate officials said they are reviewing the VA decision last week to ensure the move isn’t designed to delay payouts unnecessarily.
VA officials have insisted as many as 560,000 veterans could qualify for the benefits, and the cost in benefits and processing work could total nearly $6 billion over the next decade.
But advocates, including Wells, have disputed that number, accusing the department of inflating numbers to make the issue appear overwhelming. They estimate the real total is closer to 90,000 individuals, at a cost of about $1 billion over the next 10 years.
Wells, whose organization brought the lawsuit that forced the “blue water” benefits changes earlier this year, said he is considering additional legislation to force VA to move quicker on the awards.
But in a statement, VA officials said they are “complying with the law that Congress wrote and passed.”
Veterans who served in the seas around Vietnam and were previously denied claims related to Agent Orange exposure (and eligible survivors of those veterans) can file new claims under the rules change. VA officials said veterans over age 85 or with life-threatening illnesses will have priority in claims processing.
The department has set up an information web site for veterans and family members to explain the changes and provide information on how to apply.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.