Politics & Government

Government officials raise questions about Blue Water Veterans benefits

Sam Genco, a “Blue Water” Navy Vietnam veteran who lives in Pine Knoll Shores, N.C., is not automatically eligible for disability benefits even though he has a health problem known to be linked to dioxin, a chemical used in Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. He says he was exposed through the drinking water distillation system used on Navy ships. (Travis Long/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)
Sam Genco, a “Blue Water” Navy Vietnam veteran who lives in Pine Knoll Shores, N.C., is not automatically eligible for disability benefits even though he has a health problem known to be linked to dioxin, a chemical used in Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. He says he was exposed through the drinking water distillation system used on Navy ships. (Travis Long/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS) TNS

Department of Veterans Affairs officials said Wednesday “the science is not there” to provide Blue Water Navy Veterans with disability benefits.

The House unanimously passed a bill last month establishing those long-sought benefits. The Senate has yet to act.

But the legislation could set in motion the “uncontrolled demands” on the VA, said Paul Lawrence, the agency’s undersecretary for benefits.

“We are left with a situation where there are no limits, and therefore no claims can be denied. This in turn invites other sympathetic causes without valid science to petition Congress for compensation,” he told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Wednesday.

Blue Water Navy Veterans are those who served aboard Navy ships off the coast of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Current VA procedure doesn’t allow them presumptive disability benefits if they didn’t serve in the country’s “inland waterways” or set foot on Vietnam’s shores.

An Australian study from 2002 found that the water distillation process used on American and Australian Navy ships could have enriched some harmful chemicals in Agent Orange, which is known to cause long-term health problems, including heart conditions and cancer.

But Lawrence pointed to a 2015 Institute of Medicine study which was “unable to state with certainty that [Blue Water Navy] personnel “were or were not” exposed to AO.” The institute, now called the National Academy of Medicine, is a private nonprofit group that advises the government on health issues.

The study said that “without information on concentrations in the marine feed water, it is impossible to determine whether BWN personnel were exposed to AO via ingestion, dermal contact, or inhalation of potable water.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, was concerned about the VA’s rejection of the bill.

“If you’re exposed, you’re exposed. I don’t care if [the water is] blue, brown, purple, green,” Manchin said.

Sam Genco, at age 19, narrowly survived one of the United States’ worst military aircraft carrier fires in history, but now – fifty years later – it’s the drinking water from the USS Forrestal he says could be killing him.

The VA’s views won’t stop the bill, Manchin said.

“I assume this bill’s going to pass,” he said. “I don’t know anybody that would be opposed [to the bill] because we’ve all had constituents that have been rejected without a fair evaluation.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, who said his wife’s uncle died due to Agent Orange exposure, said he supports the bill, but was concerned about how it’s funded.

The bill will be paid for by a percentage increase in fees charged to non-disabled veterans who utilize the VA’s home loan program, according to a Congressional Budget Office report.

“I’d rather err on the side of the veteran in every case, but one of the concerns that I have right now is the new ‘pay-for’,” he said. “I’m afraid that, one, it actually concentrates the cost on a smaller group of veterans so it becomes a higher cost.”

The scene at the hearing was all too familiar for Blue Water advocates. The bill has sputtered on several occasions after legislators grappled with how to pay for the Navy veterans’ benefits.

The last attempt at the bill failed after lawmakers proposed funding it by rounding down the cost-of-living adjustment on veterans’ disability checks to the nearest dollar.

Christine Condon: @ccondon19


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