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Courtney Calls for Congressional Action to Support "Blue Water" Veterans Exposed to Agent Orange

February 17, 2016
Press Release
Bipartisan legislation would ensure that Navy veterans who served on ships surrounding Vietnam receive medical care and support for illnesses related to chemical toxin exposure

WASHINGTON, D.C. —Today, Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-02) called on the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to take up bipartisan legislation which would authorize funding to care for Navy veterans who were exposed to the chemical herbicide known as ‘Agent Orange’. In a letter sent today, Courtney requested that the Committee take up H.R. 969, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which would include Navy veterans who served on ships in Vietnamese territorial waters, so-called ‘Blue Water Navy veterans’, under coverage for illnesses believed to be related to Agent Orange exposure.

“The VA’s recent decision to continue to deny care and benefits to “Blue Water” Vietnam Veterans makes clear that Congress must take action to finally fix this problem,” wrote Courtney. “That is why I urge you to pass the bipartisan Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 969), of which I am an original cosponsor, to ensure that all those who served on naval ships in the waters surrounding Vietnam – and exposed to Agent Orange – get the care and support they deserve.”

“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. It is long past time to right this wrong, and passage of Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act will fix this problem once and for all by specifying in law that those who served in the territorial seas of Vietnam are included in the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange.”

Paul F. Dillon, Retired United States Navy veteran and Director of the Retired Activities Office for Naval Submarine Base, Groton, CT, said: “I write to express my sincere gratitude to Congressman Joe Courtney for his continued strong support of my many shipmates who served month after month in the territorial waters of Vietnam and are suffering from Agent Orange presumptive diseases and yet denied recognition from the VA for their illnesses.”

H.R. 969, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, is sponsored by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) and currently has 301 bipartisan co-sponsors. The legislation introduced into the 114th Congress is the third iteration as the bill was also introduced in the 112th and 113th Congresses. Rep. Courtney has been a co-sponsor of the legislation each time it has been introduced.

Currently, any veterans who is listed as having “served in the Republic of Vietnam” is presupposed to have been exposed to the herbicide known as Agent Orange. Unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not include Blue Water Navy veterans under this term because they served in the territorial waters off the coast of Vietnam, and not on the ground or in inland waterways.  After a recent federal court decision ordering the VA to reevaluate its definition of inland waterways, the VA reaffirmed that the term only includes service in fresh water rivers, streams, canals, and similar waterways. It does not include veterans who served on ships offshore, but were exposed to the agent when polluted seawater was brought onboard for a number of purposes including bathing and cleaning of the vessel.

The full text of the letter is available online and below:

February 17, 2016

 

Chairman Jeff Miller

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

336 Cannon House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

 

Ranking Member Corrine Brown

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

2111 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

 

Dear Chairman Miller and Ranking Member Brown:

The VA’s recent decision to continue to deny care and benefits to “Blue Water” Vietnam Veterans makes clear that Congress must take action to finally fix this problem. That is why I urge you to pass the bipartisan Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act (HR 969), of which I am an original cosponsor, to ensure that all those who served on naval ships in the waters surrounding Vietnam – and exposed to Agent Orange – get the care and support they deserve.

The widespread use of nearly 20 million gallons of the herbicide throughout Vietnam and on its inland waters to clear vegetation as part of “Operation Ranch Hand” from 1961 to 1971, led to these chemicals entering the surrounding harbors, bays, and seas. The “Blue Water” Navy ships took in this contaminated water and distilled it for showering, drinking, laundry, and cooking. Thus, some 90,000 Navy sailors were likely exposed to this toxic chemical used during the war even if they did not set foot on land.

Unfortunately, the VA continues to interpret the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which first established a presumption of exposure for those who served in Vietnam, as including only veterans who have actually set foot on land or the inland waterways of Vietnam. In the decision of Gray v. McDonald, the U.S Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims required that the VA re-evaluate and clarify Blue Water sailors’ eligibility for Agent Orange related benefits under current law. The VA stood by its current position and sailors who served in the seas outside of Vietnam’s internal waterways remain ineligible for benefits.

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. It is long past time to right this wrong, and passage of Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act will fix this problem once and for all by specifying in law that those who served in the territorial seas of Vietnam are included in the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange.

Passage of this bill will make a meaningful difference in the lives of Vietnam veterans not just in eastern Connecticut but across the country. It will not only provide the care and compensation that they deserve for their suffering – it would also provide a long-overdue acknowledgment of the risk they took in service to our country.

I appreciate the many important issues before your committee in ensuring that the VA is fulfilling its solemn duty to our veterans. However, given the magnitude of this problem, I hope you will make passage of this bill a top priority this year.

Sincerely,

JOE COURTNEY

Member of Congress

 

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