Columns

Congress ‘Running Out of Time’ to Help ‘Blue Water’ Vietnam Veterans

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is seen in Washington on Aug. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – House Veterans Affairs Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said that it’s past time for the Senate to vote on a bill that would prevent the deaths of many Vietnam veterans.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2018 unanimously passed in the House of Representatives over the summer.

“We’re willing to stay here as long as we need to stay here to get this job done, and if we don’t we have to start all over again in the next Congress,” Roe said at a press conference on Thursday. “We are this close to solving a decades-old problem for 90,000 of our colleagues. I say this as a personal thing. If we wait long enough it won’t matter because they will all be gone – and we cannot do that any longer.”

The legislation “extends the presumption of service connection for certain diseases associated with herbicide exposure to veterans who served: (1) in the territorial seas of Vietnam between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, or (2) in or near the Korean demilitarized zone between September 1, 1967, and August 31, 1971.”

According to a summary of the legislation, “Under a presumption of service-connection, specific disabilities diagnosed in certain veterans are presumed to have been caused by the circumstances of their military service. Health care benefits and disability compensation may then be awarded.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently examining whether the health problems of Blue Water veterans are specifically connected to herbicide exposure. Approximately 90,000 Blue Water veterans have not been eligible for “Agent Orange” disability benefits while land-based Vietnam veterans have qualified.

According to the VA, “the U.S. military used Agent Orange to clear plants and trees during the Vietnam War. If you served in or near Vietnam during the Vietnam Era – or in certain related jobs – you may have had contact with this toxic chemical.”

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) recently led an effort to block the legislation in the Senate until the VA’s report is complete.

“The brave men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country should undoubtedly get the medical care that they need in connection with their service. But as members of this body, it’s also our duty to ensure that it’s done in a prudent and proper way, with all the relevant information available to us,” Lee said.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the incoming Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the Republican-led Senate should not wait any longer to pass the bill.

“The clock is ticking. We are running out of time,” Takano said on Thursday. “Our House bill would pass overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. There really is no better way to close out this Congress than by coming together on this important issue. It would be a grave injustice for us to go through this process again in the next Congress because our Republican counterparts have once again decided to block a good piece of legislation.”

Addressing senators who are skeptical about the bill, Takano said, “We have a chairman who is a medical doctor and he’s vetted the science from his point of view, and I believe we need to move forward with the bill we have.”

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) echoed Takano and called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to move the legislation forward before the end of the year rather than wait until next year.

“Let’s not keep our veterans waiting and let’s keep our promise to our heroes,” he said.

Randy Reese, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, said the time to act on the bill is now before more Vietnam veterans pass away.

“We’re calling on President Trump to stand up for all of our American veterans by declaring support for this legislation. The time to take action is now before the Vietnam generation is gone,” he said.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said his home county of Suffolk has one of the highest veterans populations of any county in the nation and many of those veterans have personally asked him to support the bill.

“My final message to all my colleagues in the Senate is to get your priorities straight and pass this bill,” he said.