Bilirakis Pushes VA to Rectify its Unjust Treatment of Blue Water Navy Veterans
Washington, DC: Today, Congressman Bilirakis, Vice-Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, called upon VA Secretary Shulkin to take immediate administrative action to expand the recognition of presumptive health conditions related to Agent Orange exposure for Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans. These Veterans served in the hostile territorial waters of Vietnam, providing mission critical direct combat support operations. They deserve to be treated fairly. Agent Orange contained deadly toxins and those exposed during their service have suffered tremendously. This small group of Blue Water Navy Veterans were undoubtedly exposed to these same deadly toxins and suffered greatly, yet they are being denied the service-connected medical care and compensation to which they should be rightfully entitled. There is legislation pending in Congress to require the VA to take this action, of which Congressman Bilirakis is one of 318 bi-partisan co-sponsors. Congressman Bilirakis will work to continue to advance this legislation. Despite widespread support, however, the painstakingly slow and highly partisan legislative process is time consuming and fraught with uncertainty. Time is running out for Blue Water Navy Veterans. They are literally dying while waiting for this inevitable presumptive expansion, which is unacceptable.
The VA does not need to wait for Congressional direction to do the right thing in this matter. There is substantial precedent for the VA to grant presumptive status for certain conditions and groups. Furthermore, this exclusion is based on a 1997 VA General Counsel opinion (27-97) which interpreted the phrase “service in the Republic of Vietnam” to apply only to the landmass. This opinion ignored international recognition that national sovereignty extended to the territorial seas, a fact which was acknowledged in the 1973 Paris Peace Treaty. Additionally, in Gray v. McDonald, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has determined that this ruling is irrational, arbitrary and capricious in its April 2015 ruling. In this ruling, the Court ordered the VA to re-evaluate its definition of inland waterways and realign it on the basis of probability of exposure. Finally, as explained in Gray v. McDonald, the prior decision in Haas v. Peake “made it clear that the VA may draw a line between blue and brown water while leaving the specific line drawing to VA discretion” and the time has come for the VA to utilize this discretion. Prioritizing this issue and taking immediate action on behalf of these heroes is justified and necessary.
“This issue boils down to a matter of fairness and equitable treatment of those who have bravely defended our country during war time. I have personally met with many Blue Water Navy Veterans who suffer every day waiting for the VA to do the right thing. The VA has the authority to do so, and should immediately rectify this injustice,” said Congressman Bilirakis.