WASHINGTON — During the Vietnam War, nearly 90,000 veterans who served in ships off the Vietnam coastline could become eligible for disability benefits under a new congressional agreement unveiled on Friday, May 4th, 2018.
Next week members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will vote on a plan to provide benefits for so-called “blue water Navy veterans” along with a new fee on home loans through the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover the cost.
“We owe it to the brave veterans who served in the Vietnam War to provide benefits for conditions they may have developed because of exposure to Agent Orange,” Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. said in a statement.
Many veterans felt unfairly slighted 16 years ago when a Veterans Affairs policy change stripped them of thousands of dollars a month. The announcement of this new deal comes on the heals of the court hearing that could force the VA to award disability payments to veterans who were denied their full veterans benefits.
The approaching congressional news is being viewed with cautious optimism.
Mike Little, national executive director of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association said, “While it’s been rumored we are going to get this legislation passed in a Memorial Day package, we have been told before we were close to victory, only to have our legislation held up as a political pawn.”
“This kills the spirits of my members. This time, we have tried the best we can to make sure we have all the facts before we go let them down again.”
The core issue is the VA’s process regarding presumptive status for exposure to Agent Orange and other dangerous wartime chemicals.
Troops who served on the ground in Vietnam or patrolled inland rivers, under current department rules, are presumed to have been working with or near chemical defoliants, such as Agent Orange, and are given special status when filing disability benefits claims to speed up the process.
Blue water veterans, who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam, must prove they were directly exposed to harmful chemicals for their illnesses to be labeled as service-connected. Collecting scientific evidence, in many cases, proving the presence of these chemicals on or near the ships is impossible, due to the decades that have passed.
‘An unfortunate oversight’ is what lawmakers have called the distinction, but they have also struggled with how to pay for the cost of extending presumptive status to the excluded veterans.
With the backing of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association and other veterans organizations, the new home loan fee will cost the typical veteran homeowner about $350 over 10 years, which will generate approximately $1.1 billion during the same period to offset the extension costs.
Since many veterans with a disability rating who use the home loan program will be exempt, only an estimated 60 percent of borrowers will pay the new fee.
Supporting the plan is committee ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn., saying this is “yet another example of the good we can accomplish when we work together on a bipartisan basis with veterans service organizations and reach across the aisle.”
A vote from committee members is expected by next Tuesday, while a ruling from the pending lawsuit is expected to take several more months.