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SC Navy vets with Agent Orange illnesses will finally have VA benefits processed in 2020

USS Kitty Hawk

The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk is seen in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor on Monday, April 28, 2008. Starting in 2020, South Carolina's blue water Navy veterans who came in contact with the toxic herbicide Agent Orange may finally start receiving benefits. They can begin filing paperwork with the VA immediately. File/AP

The waiting game is over for thousands of Vietnam-era sailors suffering with illnesses from Agent Orange exposure after a federal court said the Department of Veterans Affairs can no longer delay their life-saving medical claims.

Starting in 2020, South Carolina's blue water Navy veterans who came in contact with the toxic herbicide may finally start receiving benefits. They can begin filing paperwork with the VA immediately. 

Blue water sailors served aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships in the territorial seas and were exposed to water tainted with Agent Orange when they made port or came in contact with contaminated water.

Since the war, thousands of veterans have fought to get benefits as they have been diagnosed with illnesses ranging from ischemic heart disease and lung cancer to prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease. It wasn't until this year that the VA began to accommodate these service members.

But in July, a stay until 2020 was issued by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, even though tens of thousands of Navy veterans had become eligible for compensation a month before. There was no guarantee that the stay would not be extended past Jan. 1.  

A Thursday ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit makes it clear that the stay will not be extended past 2020. It also provided legal precedence for future cases about VA claims. 

"This is a great win," Col. Rob Maness, a retired Air Force service member and executive director of the Military Veterans Advocacy nonprofit, said. "The court told the government in no uncertain terms that there is no authority to stay anything past Jan. 1. The jurisdictional finding will also be important in future cases. We thank the court for the quick response and insightful analysis."

One of the groups that filed the lawsuit was the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association. While the VA estimates that between 420,000 and 560,000 sailors could be considered under the blue water provision, advocacy groups believe the number is probably closer to 90,000.

"I wish that they would have lifted the stay completely, but they said it's not going to go any further," said retired Navy Cmdr. John Wells, director of litigation for Military Veterans Advocacy. "That's a victory."

Wells said he knows of at least 13 who have died since Wilkie issued the stay during the summer. 

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans said South Carolina has at least 17 blue water veterans, but there are likely many more. The Air Force sprayed at least 11 million gallons of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese countryside between 1962 and 1971, according to the nonprofit Institute of Medicine.

On Jan. 29, the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of Navy veteran Alfred Procopio Jr. in a case against the VA, finding the intent of Congress in the Agent Orange Act of 1991 was to extend benefits to all veterans who had been awarded the Vietnam Service Medal. 

In June, President Donald Trump signed off on the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, which granted government benefits to thousands of Vietnam veterans who were previously ineligible.

However, Wilkie interpreted a provision in the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 to mean that the VA could enforce a stay on payments.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Tommy Hawkins, a blue water veteran from Fort Mill said in July. “For them, it’s a waiting game. We’re slowly dying off.” 

Thursday's ruling means the delays will no longer happen. 

Veterans 85 and older, or those suffering with life-threatening illnesses will have priority in claims processing, according to the VA said. While VA will not begin processing claims until 2020, the claims may be processed and prepared before then. Almost 80,000 Blue Water veterans have previously submitted claims and been denied. They must resubmit their paperwork.

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on the military community across South Carolina. He also covers growth and development in Berkeley County. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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