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Veterans groups appeal to Trump over benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans

Members of advocacy groups gathered on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 18, 2016, to promote the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 13, 2019

WASHINGTON – Ten national veterans organizations pleaded with President Donald Trump on Tuesday, asking him to direct the Justice Department not to appeal a recent federal court decision that could extend benefits to thousands of Vietnam War veterans.

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled 9-2 in January that “Blue Water” Navy veterans, those who served aboard ships offshore during the war, are eligible for benefits to treat illnesses linked to exposure to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange.

The Justice Department and Department of Veterans Affairs have until the end of the month to seek a review of the case from the U.S. Supreme Court. VA General Counsel James Byrne said last month that the agency hadn’t decided whether it would appeal but officials were “taking it under advisement.”

Veterans and lawmakers have asked VA Secretary Robert Wilkie not to contest the decision. On Tuesday night, 10 groups appealed directly to Trump.

“On behalf of the undersigned veterans service organizations and our millions of members, we urge you to direct the Justice Department NOT to appeal the U.S. Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit decision,” they wrote in a letter to the president.

The court ruled in favor of Alfred Procopio, Jr., 73, who served on the USS Intrepid during the Vietnam War. Procopio is one of tens of thousands of veterans who served aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships and were deemed ineligible for the same disability benefits as those veterans who served on the ground and inland waterways.

The decision came 10 years after the VA denied Procopio’s disability claims for diabetes and prostate cancer.

At issue was interpretation of the current law, which allows easier access to disability benefits for veterans who “served in the Republic of Vietnam” and suffer from one of a list of illnesses linked to the Agent Orange. The herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.

The court determined territorial seas should be included in the definition of “Republic of Vietnam” – a point the government disputed.

For Procopio and other Blue Water Navy veterans, the decision could result in thousands of dollars of disability benefits each month. John Wells, one of the attorneys on the case, estimated 50,000 to 70,000 veterans could become eligible for benefits.

The ruling followed a failed effort in Congress last year to approve the benefits.

The House voted unanimously in favor of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act last year, but the legislation stalled in the Senate after Wilkie voiced his opposition, citing high costs and insufficient scientific evidence linking Blue Water Navy veterans to Agent Orange.

The House and Senate reintroduced the legislation at the start of the new congressional session.

The top lawmakers on the veterans affairs committees – Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Reps. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Phil Roe, R-Tenn. – said in February that they would attempt again to pass the legislation.

The 10 veterans groups argued Tuesday that the court decision authorizes the VA to make the benefits available now, without having to wait for legislation.

“We call on you to direct [Wilkie] to immediately begin implementing this decision so that justice is finally provided to the men and women who served in Vietnam, suffered from the devastating long-term health effects of Agent Orange exposure, but who today are denied the benefits and health care they have earned,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Fleet Reserve Association, Association of the United States Navy, Vietnam Veterans of America and Military Officers Association of America.

“Mr. President, a veteran is someone who at one point in their life wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America, for an amount up to and including their life,” the groups concluded. “We ask that you and our grateful nation take another step towards meeting that commitment.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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