Earlier this week, we heard for the first time official word that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie will recommend that the Justice Department not appeal the recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit which marked the first real progress we have seen for Blue Water Navy veterans in achieving VA benefits. The Procopio case at the Federal Circuit finally recognizes that Blue Water Navy veterans, those who served in the territorial seas of the Republic of Vietnam but did not enter the brown water (rivers) or set foot on land, were also exposed to Agent Orange. See Blue Water Veterans Now Get Agent Orange Rights – Hill & Ponton, P.A. This decision would allow Blue Water veterans to claim service connection for multiple diseases which are presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure, including diabetes mellitus, ischemic heart disease, respiratory cancer, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, chronic B-cell leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, soft tissue sarcoma, and numerous other diseases.
Previously, Secretary Wilkie had indicated that the VA would fight the granting of benefits to the Blue Water Navy veterans. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act which passed the House of Representatives in a unanimous vote last year was stalled in the Senate after Secretary Wilkie testified that scientific studies didn’t support a finding that the Blue Water Navy veterans were, in fact, exposed to Agent Orange. In addition, Secretary Wilkie cited the expense of such a grant, indicating over a billion dollars in benefits would have to be paid.
The Next Step for Blue Water Navy Vets
This new turnaround by the VA could allow service connected compensation to be paid to tens of thousands of veterans who served on Navy ships during the Vietnam War. The Justice Department still has until late April to decide to appeal the decision, so the issue has not been completely put to rest, but we hope that with the recommendation of Secretary Wilkie, the Procopio decision will stand.
VA is always dealing with a backlog of appeals as well as new claims. A flood of 50,000 plus new or reopened claims will add to that backlog of cases which need to be decided. In addition, after the Procopio decision was issued, the VA instructed the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the regional offices to hold off on making decisions in any Blue Water Navy cases until VA had determined how it would handle these cases. We know that the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has recently begun lifting the stays put in place on Blue Water cases to allow time for the Procopio case to become final. Hopefully, the VA is also lifting the stay on cases at the agency level or will do so soon. Secretary Wilkie has indicated that it might be necessary to create some kind of “historical division” tasked with working with the Department of Defense to help process these claims. Unfortunately, even if the fight for benefits is, indeed, over, the wait may not be.
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