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House lawmakers launch new effort to pass Blue Water Navy bill

Sam Genco, a "Blue Water" Navy Vietnam veteran who lives in Pine Knoll Shores, N.C., is not automatically eligible for disability benefits even though he has a health problem known to be linked to dioxin, a chemical used in Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. He says he was exposed through the drinking water distillation system used on Navy ships. (Travis Long/Raleigh News; Observer/TNS)
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Just days into the new congressional session, some House lawmakers are trying again to secure benefits for thousands of veterans who served on ships off the coast during the Vietnam War – an effort that failed by the time the 115th Congress ended last month.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., introduced bills at the start of the 116th Congress to extend benefits to “Blue Water” Navy veterans. Last year, identical legislation unanimously passed the House but stalled in the Senate because of cost concerns.

“The 116th Congress has officially been sworn-in, and thousands of veterans are still waiting for their government to deliver on its promise and grant them the benefits they have earned,” said Takano, the new chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

In his first act as chairman, Takano issued a letter Tuesday to House members, looking for more sponsors to sign onto the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019.

The bill is the same as the one passed by the House in 2018. It would extend Department of Veterans Affairs health care and disability compensation to an estimated 90,000 veterans who aren’t eligible. Blue Water Navy veterans have been fighting for years to prove they were exposed to Agent Orange, a dioxin-laden herbicide that’s been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and other conditions.

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Ground troops and others who served in inland waterways during the Vietnam War are already presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and granted easier access to benefits.

The Blue Water bill stalled in the Senate last year after VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and several former VA secretaries came out against it, despite widespread support among veterans organizations. Wilkie cited high costs and insufficient scientific evidence that the veterans were exposed to Agent Orange.

As the end of the session neared in December, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., leaders of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, continued to plead with senators to pass the bill.

There were multiple efforts last month to pass the bill on unanimous consent, which expedites approval but can be stopped if one senator objects.

Two holdouts objected: Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Both senators wanted to wait for a scientific study about Agent Orange and Blue Water Navy veterans that’s expected to be published sometime in 2019.

Takano said “politics got in the way” of its passage and described the bill’s failure as an “insult to all veterans.”

In a statement, Roe called on the House to quickly pass the bill again.

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John Wells, an attorney and director of the group Military-Veterans Advocacy, has been fighting on behalf of Blue Water Navy veterans since 2008. He wants Congress to take up the issue again this year but worries Takano and Roe acted prematurely.

“We need to address lessons learned from the 115th Congress to ensure the bill will pass,” Wells said.

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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