Hide caption By George W. Reilly / Special to The Journal
A federal court ruled in late January that Vietnam veterans who served on ships offshore during the war are eligible for benefits to treat illnesses linked to exposure to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange, a decision that has the potential to extend benefits’ assistance to thousands of veterans.
The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled 9-2 in favor of Alfred Procopio Jr., 73, who served on the USS Intrepid during the Vietnam War. Procopio is one of tens of thousands of “Blue Water Navy” veterans who served in Vietnam aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships and were deemed ineligible for the same disability benefits as those veterans who served on the ground and inland waterways in Vietnam.
The decision was handed one decade after the Department of Veterans Affairs denied Procopio’s disability claims for treatment of his diabetes and prostate cancer. The court’s ruling reverses a previous decision from the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which upheld the denial because Procopio could not show direct exposure to Agent Orange.
The new court ruling states, “Mr. Procopio is entitled to a presumption of service connection for his prostate cancer and diabetes mellitus. Accordingly, we reverse.” Judge Kimberly Moore, writing on behalf of the majority, added: “We find no merit in the government’s arguments to the contrary.”
At issue was an interpretation of the current law, which allows easier access to disability benefits for veterans who “served in the Republic of Vietnam” and suffer from one of a list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange.
VA began recognizing diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam beginning in 1991, naming 15 diseases as presumed to be related, including Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, early-onset peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, type-2 diabetes mellitus, light chain amyloidosis, ischemic heart disease, chronic B-cell leukemias, Parkinson’s disease and spina bifida in offspring of veterans.
The court determined “territorial seas” should be included in the definition of “Republic of Vietnam,” a point the government disputed. For Procopio and other Blue Water Navy veterans, the decision could result in thousands of dollars of disability benefits for them each month.
John Wells, one of the attorneys on the case, estimated 50,000 to 70,000 veterans could now become eligible for VA benefits. Veterans affected by the ruling must still go through a VA evaluation to ensure they meet all the eligibility criteria. The government could seek a review of the case from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Advocates have spearheaded efforts on Capitol Hill over the last eight years to extend benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans, but Congress failed to pass the legislation late last year during the final days in session. The bill stalled in the U.S. Senate after VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and several former VA secretaries came out against it. Wilkie cited high costs and insufficient scientific evidence linking Blue Water Navy veterans to Agent Orange exposure.
The legislation was introduced again last month during the first days of the 116th Congress. Wells still sees a need for Congress to pass the bill, for the veterans’ eligibility to be written explicitly in law and not left up to future courts to interpret, he said.
— Tuesday, Feb. 12, 4:30 to 6 p.m., Valentines for Vets, Warwick National Guard Armory, 541 Airport Rd. Register your family at www.vals4vets.splashthat.com . For more information, call (401) 275-1274.
— Friday, Feb. 15, from 2 to 3:30 p.m., The Providence VA Medical Center and the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Providence Regional Office will host a joint Veterans’ Town Hall meeting at the VAMC to provide updates to veterans, their families and community partners about health care and benefits. Leadership from the latter groups and the Rhode Island Office of Veterans Affairs will take questions from the audience in the fifth floor auditorium of the main hospital building at 830 Chalkstone Ave.
— Thursday, Feb. 21, 11 a.m. to noon, Women Veteran Networking Group, Providence VA Medical Center, Main Hospital, fifth Floor, Classroom 2, 830 Chalkstone Ave. For more information, call Tonya Maselli-McConnell, Women Veteran Program Manager, at (401) 273-7100, Ext. 6191, or send email to Tonya.MaselliMcConnell@va.gov.
— Thursday, Feb. 21, 2 to 4 p.m., Veterans Town Hall with director Kasim Yarn, Rhode Island Office of Veteran Affairs, Community College of Rhode Island, Knight Campus, Room 4080, 400 East Ave., Warwick.
— The Rhode Island House Veterans Affairs Advisory Committee , 10 a.m. Monday, Feb. 11, Room 135, R.I. State House, Smith Street, Providence.
— Veterans of Foreign Wars : Gatchell Post 306 Auxiliary, 7 p.m. Monday Feb. 11, 171 Fountain St., Pawtucket, and the auxiliary will have a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the post on Feb. 28 from 4 to 7 p.m., with $10 tickets sold at the door; Post 916, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12, 155 High St., South Kingstown; Kelley-Gazzerro Post 2812 post office, 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 17, 1418 Plainfield St., Cranston.
— Disabled American Veterans Lawson-Raiola East Bay Chapter 15 , 2 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12, Rhode Island Veterans Home, Metacom Avenue, Bristol.
— Vietnam Veterans of America Greater Providence Chapter 273 , 1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, Kelley-Gazzerro VFW Post 2812, 1418 Plainfield St., Cranston.
— Korean War Veterans Association Northern R.I. Chapter 3 , 2 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, Glocester Senior Center, 1210 Putnam Pike, Chepachet, and all service veterans, guests and new members are welcome; refreshments to follow meeting.
— U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary : Flotilla 72, 7 p.m. Wednesday Feb. 13, USCG Sector Southeastern New England office, 20 Risho Ave., East Providence; Providence Flotilla 78, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, Aspray Boathouse, 2 East View St., Warwick.
— U.S. Navy Seabee Veterans of America Island X-1 Davisville , 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, Seabee Museum, 21 Iafrate Way, North Kingstown; NCBC Battalion and training ship Walter Boll Sea Cadets should check their meeting schedule at riseacadets.org .
Send veterans’ meeting and news items to George W. Reilly at VeteransColumn@gmail.com .
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