by Beena Raghavendran
Tens of thousands of Navy veterans didn’t set foot in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, but spent their time on ships patrolling the waters surrounding the country. And for decades, that distinction — exactly where they put their feet — made all the difference.
Veterans with “boots on the ground” were eligible for benefits if they had an illness connected to exposure to the toxic chemical Agent Orange, which was sprayed as a defoliant during the war. Veterans on ships in inland waters, such as rivers, also could get benefits. But those who were on ships farther away weren’t compensated, even if they had the same illnesses and believed they had the same exposure. The chemicals could have washed into the sea, where Navy ships were distilling water for their own uses — like showering, washing clothes and making food.
That is poised to change as a result of a court ruling this week.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in a 9-2 decision, ruled that the Department of Veterans Affairs was wrong to deny benefits to those dubbed “Blue Water” Navy veterans. Previous court opinions had backed the VA. This could affect up to 90,000 people who served.
In 2015 and 2016, ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot wrote about the struggle of the Blue Water Navy veterans, as well as other Vietnam veterans and their families trying to get benefits they feel they are owed. In light of this week’s court ruling, we checked back with some of the Blue Water veterans we featured in our stories to hear what the decision means to them.
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