Garry Augustine, a disabled Vietnam veteran, is executive director of the Disabled American Veterans' Washington headquarters.
Before members of Congress pack up and head home for the holidays, there is one critical piece of stalled legislation they could pass now to right an overdue wrong for tens of thousands of veterans made ill due to their shipboard service during Vietnam.
Blue Water Navy veterans (those who served off the shores of Vietnam) continue to suffer and die from illnesses that have already been legally and scientifically linked to Agent Orange exposure, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has consistently denied them service-connection -- and therefore the applicable benefits and health care -- for those conditions.
For years, these veterans were considered eligible for the same benefits provided to those who had boots on the ground, but the VA made an incorrect decision and began to exclude these individuals as early as 1997. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017 would correct this injustice for the nearly 90,000 veterans impacted. But while the bill passed unanimously in the House in June, it has since languished in the Senate and the fate of the legislation hangs in the balance.
These veterans are keenly aware of the ticking clock. Now, they face the possibility of yet another year being denied access to the care and benefits they need to address their service-connected disabilities. Time is not on their side, but Congress can be if lawmakers choose to act now by supporting this legislation and holding a Senate vote before year's end.
With just days remaining, Congress is closer than it has been in a decade to closing the deal on this legislation, and it would be a major win for Blue Water Navy veterans, many of whom have spent years battling the debilitating diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange.
Passing this bill and granting presumption of service-connection will help protect the lives and livelihood of these individuals who stood in harm's way so many decades ago. But it's also validation that their service -- and moreover, their sacrifice -- is recognized, valued and respected by the nation's leaders in Washington, something particularly important to a generation of veterans who did not receive a hero's welcome returning home from service in Vietnam.
We ask Congress to give Blue Water Navy veterans something monumental to celebrate this holiday season -- hard-fought, long-overdue acknowledgment of the ailments suffered due to service to our nation. This legislation represents hope for veterans and their families at a time when time is running short. It's the right thing to do, and the time to do it is now.
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