Failed bill for offshore vets of Vietnam War angers Tester, Daines; new calls for passage

A bill intended to ensure care for veterans of the Vietnam War who served offshore and were exposed to Agent Orange failed on the Senate floor late Monday, though it earned a revived push on Tuesday.

Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines of Montana joined Democrats from New York, Connecticut and Ohio – along with veteran advocates – in calling for passage of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act.

Tester said caring for America’s veterans is a cost of sending them to war.

“If we aren’t willing to take care of our veterans when they come home, we should not send them into harm’s way,” Tester said Tuesday. “Taking care of our veterans is a cost of war.”

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act would extend disability compensation and health care to so-called “Blue Water” Navy veterans – those who served aboard ships and were exposed to any number of toxins, including Agent Orange.

Currently, only veterans who served within the borders of Vietnam can access health care and benefits related to their Agent Orange exposure.

While the House voted unanimously in favor of the legislation this summer, it has remained stuck in the Senate, with opposition coming in part from VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who expressed concern over the legislation’s costs and “insufficient scientific evidence” surrounding exposure.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, and a handful of other GOP holdouts said the costs, estimated between $1 billion and $2.2 billion, are too high. But advocates, including Tester and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, argue otherwise, saying health care is a right earned by those who served.

“It is unacceptable that for the past sixteen years, the VA has denied health benefits to our Blue Water Navy vets just because of an arbitrary rule blocking veterans who served on boats off Vietnam’s coast from the benefits they have earned and deserve,” Gillibrand said. “It’s outrageous that a couple of senators are now blocking these benefits too by refusing to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act.”

Daines, too, has called on his GOP colleagues to pass the measure.

“The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act is about fairness, about justice and about congressional intent,” Daines said. “The intent of Congress was to ensure that those who served in Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange are getting the care they need and deserve.”

Tester called efforts to block the measure “a thumb in the eye to millions of veterans.”

“I’m incredibly disappointed in the obstructionism that blocked our bipartisan and widely supported Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act. Republicans and Democrats have worked in good faith to move this bill with plenty of opportunities for debate along the way.