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House panel supports Agent Orange coverage for ‘Blue Water’ Navy veterans

A bouquet of roses, left to remember the dead, adorns the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller/Released)

House lawmakers approved legislation Tuesday to extend Agent Orange benefits to approximately 90,000 sailors who served off the coast during the Vietnam War.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voted unanimously to send a bill to the full House that would provide benefits to “Blue Water” Navy veterans, who were aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships and potentially exposed to Agent Orange. The dioxin-laden herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.

After years of fighting, Tuesday marks the first instance that legislation providing benefits for Blue Water veterans has advanced past the committee level. Lawmakers and veteran advocates who were gathered in the committee room joined in a round of applause after the vote.

“We began fighting for this bill in 2011,” said John Wells, an attorney and retired Navy officer. “It has been a long slog. I have personally visited every office on both the House and Senate side over these years.”

Increasing benefits for Blue Water veterans has been widely supported, and the bill sent to the House has more than 300 sponsors. Congress previously delayed progress on the issue because of cost concerns. Extending the benefits would cost $1.1 billion for 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office estimated.

Lawmakers approved the measure Tuesday because they agreed on a method to pay for it.

The bill would increase fees for servicemembers and veterans who use the VA’s home loan program. The increase would amount to $2.95 each month for homeowners who made no down payment. The increase would average $2.82 each month for people who made a 5 percent down payment and $2.14 each month for people who put 10 percent down.

The several lawmakers who spoke Tuesday in favor of the bill all made a similar remark – it was a measure “long overdue.”

“I’ve been contacted routinely by Blue Water Navy veterans suffering from diseases associated with Agent Orange,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the committee chairman. “In a few years, there will be very few Vietnam veterans remaining. They should not have to wait any longer.”


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