Valadao, Reed move Agent Orange benefits bill closer to becoming law

Nearly 90,000 military veterans exposed to the toxic Agent Orange chemical during the Vietnam War could receive disability benefits under a new U.S. House-approved bipartisan proposal from U.S. Reps. David Valadao (R-CA) and Tom Reed (R-NY) that would cover costs for any associated diseases or health problems.

Introduced by Rep. Valadao in January 2017, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017, H.R. 299, on June 25 passed the House by a vote of 382-0. Rep. Reed cosponsored the bill, along with U.S. Reps. Tim Walz (D-MN) and Joe Courtney (D-CT), among many others. The U.S. Senate next considers the measure.

“Every day veterans call my office asking when this law will be corrected and I’m grateful to tell them we are one massive step closer to ensuring they receive the medical treatment they deserve,” Rep. Valadao said. “I look forward to working with the Senate so that our veterans, who have given our nation so much, receive the healthcare they have earned.”

“We care about our Vietnam Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange but have been denied fair access to the benefits they deserve,” said Rep. Reed. “This is a great example of Washington working together and solving a problem to help people.”

During the 20-year Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange on jungle foliage to kill the enemy’s ground cover. The dioxin-laden herbicide is known by the federal government to cause numerous cancers — including Hodgkin’s Disease, chronic B-cell leukemias, prostate and respiratory cancers — as well as Parkinson’s disease, Type II Diabetes, and heart disease, among other conditions.

The federal Agent Orange Act of 1991 authorized the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to declare certain associated illnesses “presumptive” to exposure to Agent Orange and U.S. military veterans could receive disability compensation for related conditions. But in 2002, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) ended benefits for Blue Water veterans — so called because they served on U.S. Navy ships off the coast of Vietnam.

The VA limited the scope of the law to the veterans who could provide proof of having been “boots on the ground” in Vietnam. As a result, blue water veterans were required to file individual claims to prove direct exposure to Agent Orange and get their benefits restored. The VA has been deciding these claims case-by-case.

And the process isn’t going well, according to a statement from Rep. Valadao’s office. Proving direct exposure to Agent Orange in many cases has been almost impossible for blue water veterans since scientific evidence was never collected nor stored on board the ships, the statement says.

H.R. 299 would include the Republic of Vietnam as part of its territorial seas for purposes of the presumption of service connection for diseases associated with exposure by veterans to certain herbicide agents while in Vietnam, according to the congressional record summary.

If enacted, H.R. 299 would expand VA benefits for Vietnam Blue Water Navy veterans who currently suffer from any of the diseases the U.S. government has linked to Agent Orange as a result of their military service, and they wouldn’t have to prove direct exposure, according to a summary provided by the lawmakers.

H.R. 299 also would authorize the VA to provide healthcare, vocational training and a monetary allowance to veterans’ children born with spina bifida, if the veterans served in Thailand from Jan. 9, 1962, through May 7, 1975, and were exposed to Agent Orange; and would require the VA to report to Congress within 180 days of enactment on the latest findings of a follow-up study on symptoms affecting Gulf War veterans, according to the summary.

“This bill has been years in the making and I am grateful for Rep. Valadao’s leadership on this issue,” said U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN), who applauded House passage of H.R. 299, which he called “critical to our nation’s Blue Water Navy veterans.”

Rep. Roe also said he looks forward “to working with my colleagues in the Senate to get this bill to President Trump’s desk and finally provide Blue Water Navy veterans with the benefits they deserve.”

Additionally, H.R. 299 has the endorsement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW), the Association of the United States Navy (AUSN), Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc., the Fleet Reserve Association, the Blue Water Navy Association, and the Vietnam Veterans Association.