WASHINGTON -- After more than a 10-year fight, thousands of Vietnam veterans cut off from disability benefits are making headway in getting access to compensation.
- Bill provides Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water Navy Vets
- Vets exposed off the coast of Vietnam cut off from benefits
- Would be paid for with new VA-backed home loan fee for non-disabled veterans
Called "Blue Water Navy Vets," they may have been exposed to Agent Orange while in the seas off the coast of Vietnam. However, because of policies by the Department of Veterans Affairs, they have been denied specialized access to benefits.
Veterans advocates say potentially 90,000 sailors were exposed to Agent Orange, but are right now cut off compensation.
"It’s unfair to all of us. It’s time that this country stands up and say we’ll do the right thing," said Michael Bornes, a veteran from Holly Springs, NC.
Currently, Vietnam vets who served on land get special access to disability benefits through the VA. Those who stayed at sea do not receive such benefits.
A bill that is on the move in Congress would change that, expanding who the benefits are offered to. It has already passed the House with unanimous support.
Bornes, who is one of the "Blue Water Navy Vets," suffers from Type 2 diabetes and is experiencing numbness in his feet and hands.
Type 2 is just one of several diseases the VA identifies as being associated with Agent Orange exposure. Others include non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer.
The toxic chemical is believed to have entered the water systems on the boats.
"You drank that water, you bathed in it, your food was cooked in it, your clothes were washed in it," Bornes said.
Up until 2002, veterans who never stepped on Vietnamese soil qualified for special access to disability benefits. But then the VA changed its policies. Since then, the fight as been on, with advocates looking to the courts and Congress for help.
"This is a cost of war. There’s always plenty of money to send folks to war. When they come back, we’ve got to take care of them," said John Wells, the Executive Director of Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc. Wells is among those lobbying for the bill on Capitol Hill.
Unlike in past years, their efforts are now paying dividends on Capitol Hill. Prior to its passage in the House, the "Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017" has garnered 330 cosponsors.
"We owe everyone who has ever fought for this country, we owe the families of everyone that’s ever fought for this country," said Rep. Walter Jones, R-NC, one of the cosponsors.
The new benefits, estimated to cost somewhere in the ballpark of $1 billion over a decade, would be paid for by other veterans. A new fee would be tacked onto the VA-backed home loan for non-disabled veterans, amounting to a few dollars each month.
Bornes is excited to see the progress, but says for him it is not about the money he may receive through compensation. It is about "justice."
"It’s unfair to all of us. It’s time that this country stands up and say we’ll do the right thing," Bornes said.
The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration. When and if they may take it up remains unclear.