A bipartisan push in Congress on a bill to get Agent Orange benefits for "Blue Water Navy" veterans of Vietnam gained traction Wednesday from a court ruling that went against opposition from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I hope they've heard it loud and clear at the VA," Thomas Snee, national executive director of the Fleet Reserve Association, said of the court ruling that could extend Agent Orange benefits and health care to an estimated 90,000 sailors who served off the coast of Vietnam.
Snee, a former master chief who served on the destroyer Vogelgesang off Vietnam, said, "The VA needs to stop pushing back and get to 'Yes.' "
In a 9-2 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of 73-year-old Alfred Procopio Jr., who served on the aircraft carrier Intrepid off Vietnam. He had been denied benefits by the VA for lack of scientific evidence that his diabetes and prostate cancer were related to exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.
In her ruling for the majority supporting Procopio's claim, Judge Kimberly A. Moore wrote, "We find no merit in the government's arguments to the contrary."
John Wells, a lawyer and Navy veteran who argued the case for Procopio, said that "innumerable veterans were denied palliative and potentially lifesaving benefits" in the long struggle for coverage.
In a statement after the ruling, Wells, head of the Military Veterans Advocacy group, said, "The many people who fought this battle alongside us and the veterans whose lives have been forever changed by the VA's policy are all due thanks and credit."
The VA has yet to decide whether to appeal the decision or continue to oppose congressional efforts to pass a bill mandating benefits and health care for the Blue Water veterans.
"VA is reviewing this decision and will determine an appropriate response," a spokesman said.
In his concurring opinion in the Procopio case, Judge Raymond T. Chen wrote that legislation is needed to back up the court's action.
"Recent debates in Congress, which required consideration of the significant cost of the proposed addition of Blue Water Navy veterans [for Agent Orange benefits], underscores why Congress, rather than the courts, should be the one to revisit our interpretation," he wrote.
Last year, the House unanimously passed a Blue Water Navy bill, but several Republican senators, citing the costs, blocked a vote in the Senate. A spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, one of the senators who blocked the vote, said that he was "still reviewing the [court] decision at this time."
A similar bill was introduced on the House side earlier this month. Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, the new chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the court ruling "appears to bring our country one step closer to ensuring that we fulfill our duty to care for veterans affected by exposure to Agent Orange."
He noted the failure of the bill last year, and said in a statement, "It is time for Congress to right this wrong, redouble our effort to pass H.R. 299 and uphold our responsibility to care for our nation's veterans."
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement that he supported the bill last year "because I believe [Blue Water veterans] should have remained eligible for these benefits as Congress intended."
"I am pleased to see this recent court decision, and I look forward to working with the VA on its next steps on addressing this," he said.
Earlier this month during a VA town hall meeting webcast, Paul Lawrence, head of the Veterans Benefits Administration, said the VA still lacks "sufficient evidence" to prove a presumptive link between service off the coast of Vietnam and the illnesses caused by the widespread use of the Agent Orange.
Those who served on the ground or the inland waters of Vietnam currently are eligible for benefits for the "presumptive" link to 14 Agent Orange-related illnesses, but those who served off the coast are not.
"In terms of presumptives, they come with a real requirement of sufficient evidence to indicate it's warranted," Lawrence said.
Major veterans organizations hailed the court's decision and urged Congress to move quickly on legislation for the aging Blue Water veterans.
Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander B.J. Lawrence said the ruling for Procopio, a life member of VFW Post 6587 in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, was laudable, but "the VFW isn't quite ready to celebrate."
"That's because the VA can always appeal the ruling and Congress has yet to pass a Blue Water Navy bill," he said in a statement. "But it is very encouraging to now have a court of law support Blue Water Navy veterans along with the court of public opinion."
Carl Blake, an Army veteran and executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the court ruling "resolves a decades-long controversy that has visited a grave injustice" on Blue Water veterans.
"Now our staff around the country will work to ensure that the Blue Water veterans and their families receive their benefits," he said in a statement.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.