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A “Bittersweet” Moment: Court Says VA Was Wrong in Denying Vietnam Veterans Benefits

We wrote about the struggle of the “Blue Water” Navy veterans in 2015 and 2016, and after a court decision in their favor this week, we hear what this fight has meant to them.

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.

Wilson McDuffie, 73

Sumter, South Carolina

When we last talked to him: in a story published Sept. 11, 2015

Wilson McDuffie

Then: “How do I think or how do I feel? It doesn’t matter. It really has no bearing upon what the government is going to do or what the VA is going to do based on what I feel or what I think. I know for a fact what I did … but as far as proving it to someone that wasn’t there, that’s not possible.”

Now, after this week’s ruling: Wilson spent years trying to prove to the VA that his ship was in “brown water,” which is the term for veterans who served in inland waters (and are compensated because of their proximity to Agent Orange, based on the VA’s previous interpretation of the law). The VA denied him benefits multiple times, Wilson said. On Monday, he said he got a call from a VA representative saying there was a letter coming to him that would include some favorable information. That letter, which arrived on Thursday, said he’s now eligible for Agent Orange-related benefits based on being in a “brown water” area during Vietnam and having two conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure (diabetes mellitus, Type 2, and peripheral neuropathy).

He called the court decision “very bittersweet.”

“The sweet part is, [the court] finally made a decision in favor of the veterans that should have been made a long time ago and stuck with. And the bitter part is so many have died, so many have gotten ill and aren’t going to be able to financially use much as they could have. And of course, people like me have just gotten older.”

Jim Smith, 68

Virginia Beach, Virginia

When we last talked to him: in a story published Sept. 11, 2015 (here, too)

Then: “I was there,” Smith said. “Agent Orange was there. Would I have gotten cancer anyway? Maybe. But maybe not.”

Jim Smith

Now: Smith has prostate cancer, but the VA is only compensating him for tinnitus — an injury unconnected to Agent Orange that the VA covers because he was a naval aviator and the noise of flying jets could have contributed to it. Smith’s claim is still open, so under the new ruling, the VA should compensate him for the prostate cancer and give him retroactive compensation. Smith wonders if the VA will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. And if it doesn’t appeal, he asked, how will the decision get implemented?

“We’re a dying breed in every sense of the word. We’re not creating more Vietnam veterans, we’re losing them every day. ... Yes, it’ll make life easier for a while and that kind of stuff, but it’s just I think good that we’re recognized as having been exposed to it so one of these days when they start doing studies saying, ‘Well, how were their children affected by it?’ it’ll mean something more to my son and perhaps even my grandchildren someday.”

Eddie Johnny, 75

Stockton, California

When we last talked to him: in a story published Sept. 11, 2015

Then: “I didn’t even know what Agent Orange was until after I got out of the service.”

Now: One of the activists in Johnny’s VFW group texted him the news about the ruling at about 11 p.m. on Tuesday, but he didn’t read it until early the next morning. During those early morning hours, when he can’t sleep, he sometimes writes letters to members of Congress about the Blue Water Navy veterans. Not this time.

“There’s never a bad time to get good news,” he said.

He called the decision a “long time coming.” He said he had “a lot of illness related to Agent Orange and I actually thought I would really die before it came through. I saw a few of my buddies leave here [die] without getting any benefits at all.”

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Portrait of Beena Raghavendran

Beena Raghavendran

Beena Raghavendran is an engagement reporter focused on local reporting at ProPublica.

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