It appears that Blue Water Veterans have lost another battle with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
In a Feb. 5, 2016 update to the disability compensation adjudication manual, the VA changed its operating policy, stating that new vessels will no longer be added to the ships list, and new dates will not be added for vessels currently on the list based on entering Qui Nhon Bay Harbor or Ganh Rai Bay or any other offshore waters.
Specific geographic locations determined to be inland waterways and offshore waters were also added.
Service members operating on the inland waterways during the Vietnam War are referred to as “brown water” Veterans. Brown water Veterans have been afforded the presumption of service connection for diseases suffered as a result of exposure to herbicides, including Agent Orange.
However, blue water Veterans — who served offshore the Republic of Vietnam — have been denied equitable benefits for decades. Blue water Veterans have had to prove duty or visitation in the Republic of Vietnam while serving aboard ships anchored offshore in order to be eligible for a regulatory presumption of service connection.
The VA has maintained a list of ships and specific dates recognized for activities in Vietnam. Posted on the publichealth.va.gov website, there were 344 ships, last updated in November 2015 according to the website. On Feb. 5, the VA posted this message: “Due to a recent change in policy, the alphabetized Ships List below is out-of-date (as of February 5, 2016).”
This is not the first policy change that denies the service and sacrifices of Blue Water Veterans. In a recent comparison of ship listings posted on the VA website, the Activities in Vietnam had been changed for the Vancouver (LPD-2). The VA had previously acknowledged service from August 1966 through 1971:
“While anchored offshore, conducted numerous amphibious troop beach landings with smaller “mike boats” in the areas of Da Nang, Cam Ranh Bay, Cua Viet River, and Mekong River Delta from August 1966 through 1971”
With no fanfare, the VA changed the dates of activities in Vietnam that essentially eliminated any activities in October, November, and December 1971:
“While anchored offshore, conducted numerous amphibious troop beach landings with smaller “mike boats” in the areas of Da Nang, Cam Ranh Bay, Cua Viet River, and Mekong River Delta from February 1965 to September 1971”
“Docked to pier at Da Nang on June 19, 1971”
“Entered inland Qui Nhon Bay during September 11-12, 1971”
In the latest change to the VA adjudication procedures, the following locations are now considered offshore waters of the Republic of Vietnam:
- Da Nang Harbor
- Nha Trang Harbor
- Qui Nhon Bay Harbor
- Cam Ranh Bay Harbor
- Vung Tau Harbor, and
- Ganh Rai Bay
An “important” note was added for internal staff:
“VA previously extended the presumption of exposure to herbicides to Veterans serving aboard U.S. Navy and other vessels that entered Qui Nhon Bay Harbor or Ganh Rai Bay. In the interest of maintaining equitable claim outcomes among shipmates, VA will continue to extend the presumption of exposure to Veterans who served aboard vessels that entered Qui Nhon Bay Harbor or Ganh Rai Bay during specified periods that are already on VA’s “ships list.” VA will no longer add new vessels to the ships list, or new dates for vessels currently on the list, based on entering Qui Nhon Bay Harbor or Ganh Rai Bay or any other offshore waters.”
In addition, the criteria of the ship having “operated on close coastal waters for extended periods of time” was changed to “sent crew ashore”.
There have been several legislative attempts to bring relief to Blue Water Veterans “to include as part of the Republic of Vietnam its territorial seas for purposes of the presumption of service connection for diseases associated with exposure by veterans to certain herbicide agents while in Vietnam.”
HR-969 (Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015) was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Chris Gibson (D-NY) on February 13, 2015 with strong bipartisan support. It was referred to the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs on March 6, 2015.
S.681(Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2015) was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) on March 9, 2015. It was referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on March 9, 2015 with hearings held on May 13, 2015. With 37 co-sponsors, support continues to grow, with the latest co-sponsor added February 4, 2016.
Previous versions of these bills have been introduced, but not enacted.
References: Agent Orange Act of 1991; 38CFR3.307(a)(6)(iii)-Presumptive service connection for … disease associated with exposure to certain herbicide agents….; 38CFR3.309(e) –Diseases subject to presumptive service connection; M21-1, Part IV, Subpart ii, Chapter 1, Section H, Topic 2 updated February 5, 2015