Update: A federal court ruled on November 5 that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must pay retroactive benefits for Agent Orange-related health problems to Navy veterans who served on ships off Vietnam's coast. These payments will honor the terms of a 1991 settlement between the VA and veterans. The settlement also requires payments to surviving children and the estates of deceased veterans. Blue water vets do not need to file new claims to request benefits; veterans who filed Agent Orange-related claims in the past will now have those claims automatically reviewed. (Note this is a change from the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act that Congress passed in 2019, which required Blue Water vets to file a new claim to be considered for benefits.)
In the past, it was a challenge for veterans who served on ships near Vietnam to prove disability due to Agent Orange because they must prove they served in Vietnam. Service in Vietnam means stepping foot on land or serving on inland waterways at some point.
The VA alleges that there is no Department of Defense evidence of Agent Orange exposure when the herbicide was sent to Vietnam on boats, when aircraft that flew over Vietnam were serviced on ships, or when Agent Orange was used or tested on ships.
Some ships, however, went into the inland waterways or into the coastal waterways where they sent small boats to shore. The VA kept a list of ships that meet the "service in Vietnam" requirement, and veterans had to prove, through their military records, that they were aboard one of these ships to satisfy this eligibility requirement.
Veterans who served without ever having "boots on the ground" and whose ships did not enter an inland waterway are referred to as "blue water veterans." Service on ships that anchored in the harbors off the coast of Vietnam typically did not qualify a veteran for Agent Orange-related disability, at least for the last two decades, and so they were effectively denied disability compensation.
Prior to the November 2020 ruling, only veterans who were able to prove that their ship landed in Vietnam or traveled on Vietnam's inland waterways were eligible for "presumptive service connection." Now blue water vets can also be found eligible for service-connected disability compensation through a presumptive service connection.
Presumptive service connection is available to Vietnam veterans with various Agent Orange-related diseases, such as Parkinson's disease or Hodgkin's disease. Veterans with these illnesses don't need to prove that they were exposed to Agent Orange while in military service; instead, the exposure is "presumed" to have occurred.
To qualify for Agent Orange presumptive service connection, a veteran must show:
Even though technically veterans can be eligible by proving that their current illness was caused by Agent Orange exposure (in other words, proving a direct service connection), there are roadblocks to proving this.
Though no longer necessary to qualify for benefits, you can check to see if the ship(s) you served on went into the inland waterways of Vietnam or into the coastal waters by viewing the VA's Ship List. If so, check your military records (read about how to obtain military records) for proof that you served aboard the ship. If you can prove you were on a ship that operated on an inland waterway, no further documentation is necessary. But if your ship was in the close coastal waters, had crew who went ashore, or docked in Vietnam, you can provide a written statement that you went ashore.
Even before the November 2020 ruling, there was a special rule permitting presumptive service connection for certain diseases based merely on service in Vietnam without a requirement of stepping foot on land or serving in inland or coastal waterways. Blue water veterans can be eligible for presumptive service connections for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. While non-Hodgkin lymphoma has many different subtypes, including B-cell lymphomas such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and small-cell lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL), the VA doesn't automatically recognize that all cases of CLL and SLL are non-Hodgkin lymphoma. If you have one of these subtypes, ask your oncologist to write a letter explaining why your specific instance of cancer is classified as a non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Oftentimes blue water veterans do their own research to try to prove their ship service qualifies as "service in Vietnam." The VA provides some guidance for how to get your ship added to the list. Since the VA won't do this research for you, you need to submit evidence that your ship qualifies before applying for disability compensation.
Evidence that your ship was in the inland waterways, coastal waters, or sent boats ashore can often be found in ship logs. Ship logs can be requested from the National Archives. You can call the military records reference desk at (301) 837-3510 or request records online using eVetRecs. Often hundreds of these logs must be reviewed to find helpful information, and sometimes notes about latitude and longitude measurements must be mapped out.
Information about ship histories can also be of help and can be found by using the volunteer-created Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association also provides many helpful resources.
If a blue water veteran states in an application for disability compensation that his or her ship docked in Vietnam or spend significant time in the waters close to Vietnam, the VA will investigate this claim. To do so, the VA will request assistance from the Army and from the Joint Services Records Research Center (JSRRC). The veteran must provide a 60-day timeframe within which the ship was "in Vietnam." JSRRC will review ship logs and ship histories to confirm if the ship was indeed there.
With the November 2020 ruling, taking steps to prove that your ship was docked in Vietnam or spent time in inland waterways should no longer be necessary.
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