A push to extend more health benefits to "Blue Water" Navy veterans of the Vietnam War appears to be gaining momentum.

Members of the House recently voted to make permanent a court ruling that grants benefits to roughly 90,000 sailors who claim to have been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, advancing the legislation to the Senate and encouraging advocates who have long fought for these protections.

Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act would alter VA policy

The infamous Agent Orange is an herbicide that was widely used as part of the U.S. military's "Operation Ranch Hand," which lasted from 1962 until 1971. The operation's objective was to spray chemicals that would deprive the Viet Cong of food and vegetation cover, but the toxicity of the herbicide had the unintended consequence of causing significant health problems for the many individuals who were exposed to it.

It is the Department of Veterans Affairs' current position that the vets who served on open sea ships off the shores of Vietnam, often referred to as "Blue Water Veterans," were not exposed to Agent Orange since they never set foot on the Indochina Peninsula. As a result, the VA requires that these Blue Water veterans "show on a factual basis" that they were actually exposed to herbicides during their military service in order to receive disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange.

However, veterans advocates have long maintained that the burden of proof should not be on those who served, and many lawmakers are inclined to agree.

"I've no way to prove where I walked 40 years ago," said ranking Veterans Affairs Committee member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who served near the Korean demilitarized zone.

This proposed legislative fix was primarily triggered by a January Federal Circuit decision in the case of Procopio v. Wilkie, which ruled that Blue Water veterans were, in fact, entitled to a presumption of benefits under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, vindicating former sailors who fought for years to challenge the VA's decision to limit the presumption standard only to those soldiers who had "boots on the ground." It appears unlikely that the VA will challenge the court's decision, according to Bloomberg Government, which is why some in Congress are pushing to officially codify and fund the expansion of benefits.

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.""The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."

On May 14, 2019, House members voted to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which extends access to VA benefits related to Agent Orange illnesses to the sailors who served off the coast of Vietnam, as well as veterans who served near the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula beginning in September 1967. If passed, the bill would also require the VA to identify American military bases in Thailand where Agent Orange was used.

House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano and Rep. Roe have said that they have included a funding plan that will cover the cost of extending new benefits to veterans for the treatment of Agent Orange illnesses.

"Congress has failed our Blue Water Navy veterans – plain and simple," said Rep. Mark Takano. "It was unjust then and it is unjust now. But today we have an opportunity to right this wrong. Congress didn't find the resolve to act until 1991 and it left out key groups exposed to agent orange… effectively denying their suffering that was a direct result of their service. This bill is the quickest and surest way to deliver benefits to these veterans."

Supporters in the House are now asking their colleagues in the Senate to take up and pass the legislation, as are veteran advocates who are also championing the bill.

"For decades, tens of thousands of veterans, their families and survivors have been denied their earned benefits," leaders of veterans service organizations wrote in a letter to Takano and Roe, according to "While it is long past due, it is time that we correct the injustice done to Blue Water Navy veterans and provide protection of the Procopio decision by passing H.R. 299."