More than 90,000 sea-service veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War are one step closer to receiving disability pay and health care benefits from the VA.
The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act was overwhelmingly approved by the House 382-0 on Monday night. The bill will now move to the Senate for final approval.
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“We would never leave a veteran behind because we've continued fighting for this for a long time,” said Marine Lt. Col. Aniela Szymanski, MOAA's director of Government Relations for Reserve and National Guard and Veterans Benefits. “Even if it didn't happen this year, we'd continue fighting 10 years, if that's what it required.”
Veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam have long-fought to have their illnesses recognized as being caused by Agent Orange, an herbicide sprayed by aerial troops to destroy the vegetation enemy fighters used as cover. Those who served on the Korean demilitarized zone between Sept. 1, 1967 and Aug. 31, 1971, will also be covered.
More than 3 million veterans have developed illnesses due to exposure to Agent Orange, according to government data. Unlike ground troops who served in Vietnam who were assumed to have been exposed, naval troops have to prove they stepped foot in Vietnam to show their illness was service connected.
The task was challenging since the VA has not maintained complete health records for veterans of that era.
For ground troops, special status was granted to expedite disability claims because it was assumed they were exposed. Those veterans were not required to prove exposure. This bill will extend that same treatment to naval veterans, who would also be considered to have been exposed to the toxic materials.
The bill funds about $1 billion in benefits for those veterans over the next 10 years. In order to cover the costs, fees on VA-backed home loans will increase.
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From Jan. 1, 2019 through Dec. 1, 2027, the fee collected for the first use of the benefit for loans with no down payment would be increased from 2.15 percent to 2.4 percent.
The fee does not affect loans to veterans with VA-rated disabilities.
Despite the increases to some home loans, Szymanski said veterans decided to accept the fees in order to help their Vietnam-era comrades. It was ultimately veterans who approved the bill, she said.
“In the end, it was decided that it's better … that veterans take the matter into their own hands and pay higher fees so these veterans can be taken care of,” she said.
The bill extends health care, vocational training and rehabilitation to blue-water veterans. It also provides a monetary allowance to a child born with spina bifida if at least one parent was a veteran who served in Thailand between Jan. 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 and was exposed to herbicides. A narrow portion of these veterans had been considered exposed, and the bill expands benefits to their children.
The VA, in consultation with the DoD, will also be required to submit a report to Congress identifying the military installations within the U.S. herbicides were used between Jan. 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. And chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said he was thrilled the bill was approved by his chamber.
“This bill is critical to our nation's Blue Water Navy veterans as it ensures they receive benefits for any condition they may have developed as a result of exposure to Agent Orange,” he said in a statement.