They served in the Vietnam War, but they served offshore. They handled Agent Orange, the cancer-causing defoliant, but they handled it on carriers and ships in coastal waters.
And because they served offshore as mechanics or radar men on aircraft carriers, so-called Blue Water Navy veterans have been denied disability benefits. An overwhelming federals appeal court ruling should right this wrong.
It is well past time.
In a 9-2 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found Blue Water Navy veterans are eligible for disability benefits under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, overturning a Veterans Affairs administrative decision.
Their ruling was fairly straightforward: International law includes coastal waters. So, when lawmakers referred to the Republic of Vietnam, they were inherently referring to its coastal waters as well.
Anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 Navy veterans could benefit from this ruling. Those who have any of the 14 diseases connected to Agent Orange could potentially receive as much as $2,000 a month, tax-free.
Express-News journalist Bill Lambrecht has been dogged in his reporting on this issue.
Some history to consider about how this important ruling came to be: For years, Blue Water veterans have been denied these benefits, unless they could show they served on the ground in Vietnam or along an inland waterway.
But many Blue Water veterans were exposed to Agent Orange while on carriers, and subsequently have had cancer, diabetes and heart ailments, among other health issues.
The Department of Veteran Affairs argued there was no proof these ailments were the result of Agent Orange exposure. Such ailments are common for people in their 60s or 70s, the VA said.
But there have been signals that cost concerns may have clouded this viewpoint. For example, after the U.S. House unanimously approved legislation to restore benefits for Blue Water veterans, the effort was derailed in the U.S. Senate over cost concerns. Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said it would cost billions of dollars to provide these benefits and lead to administrative hassles.
So what? If the benefits are owed — and this ruling has made it clear they are — then they should be provided.
It's unclear if Veterans Affairs will appeal this ruling, but the better path would be to honor it and the sacrifices these veterans made. It is the right thing to do.
Congress can help the cause by passing legislation to reaffirm the original intent of the Agent Orange Act of 1991, broadening it to those veterans who served in Guam, South Korea, the Philippines and other locations that also housed, or may have housed, herbicides.
The VA has said there are no records of Agent Orange being used or stored in Guam, but veterans say otherwise. And the same VA had long argued that Blue Water Navy veterans were not eligible for these benefits, but they are.
Lacking definitive evidence, the VA should extend these benefits to Vietnam veterans who served in Guam and other locales.
It is never wrong to do the right thing.
-- San Antonio Express-News