Bill to provide VA benefits to Blue Water Navy vets passes key U.S. House committee

A proposal from U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, to expand benefits to so-called Blue Water Navy veterans, those who served on ships in the territorial seas of Vietnam, has passed a key House committee.

The proposal, H.R. 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, would require the Department of Veterans' Affairs to expedite consideration for VA benefits if the veterans suffer from any of the 14 health conditions that the federal government recognizes as being linked to Agent Orange exposure. The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Tuesday passed the legislation, which Courtney introduced with U.S. Rep. David G. Valadao, a Republican representing California's 21st District.

"It is hard to overstate how important this legislation is for the Navy veterans who are suffering from Agent Orange exposure without any medical coverage from the VA," Courtney said in a prepared statement. "Like many veterans in my district who regularly share their concerns about this issue with me, I am deeply disappointed in the VA's continued refusal to act."

Agent Orange was the most common herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to reduce foliage to make it easier to spot enemy troops. More than 20 million gallons of the herbicide were sprayed during the war. Blue Water Navy vets have argued that Agent Orange washed into rivers and out to sea and that their ships sucked in the water and used it for showering, cooking and cleaning.

Initially, this group of vets were recognized and compensated by the VA under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which presumed certain diseases resulted from exposure to dioxins and other herbicide agents during military service in Vietnam.

In 2002, the VA reinterpreted the legislation to apply only to veterans who served in the inland rivers or set foot in Vietnam, stripping Blue Water Navy vets of their coverage.

Since then, legislation in Congress has tried to restore coverage to these veterans, with no success.

The current legislation has 329 co-sponsors comprising 154 Republicans and 175 Democrats. It has been endorsed by the Association of the United States Navy (AUSN), Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc., Fleet Reserve Association, Blue Water Navy Association and Vietnam Veterans Association.

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