By: Leo Shane III - Military Times
The “blue water” Vietnam veterans benefits act is now law.
Late Tuesday night, President Donald Trump signed the legislation, which grants presumptive status for disability benefits to an estimated 90,000 Navy veterans who served in the seas around Vietnam during the war.
Unlike their fellow service members stationed on the ground and on inland waterways, those veterans faced additional paperwork barriers to prove exposure to toxic defoliants during their deployments, even after developing identical serious cancers and respiratory illnesses.
Advocates had long complained that put an unfair burden on the aging veterans, since water monitoring records from decades ago were inaccessible or non-existent. The higher proof of exposure blocked most so-called “blue water” veterans from eligibility for benefits, which can total several thousand dollars a month.
A federal appeals court in January overturned Veterans Affairs officials’ policy of denying the Navy veterans claims, and lawmakers followed in subsequent months with a legislative fix to reinforce the legal ruling.
Last week, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said during a Senate hearing that even before passage of the new legislation, department staff have already begun processing the claims.
“We are working with the Department of Defense and the Department of Navy to make sure that we have those adequate lists (of eligible veterans),” he said. “I cannot tell you now the numbers. I can tell you we are working on them. I will promise to come back to (Congress) if we need additional resources.”
The new law will pay for the presumptive benefits change — expected to total $1.1 billion over 10 years — with a new fee on certain VA home loans. Disabled veterans will be exempt from the extra cost.
In addition to the Navy Vietnam veterans, the legislation also expands presumptive disability benefits to troops who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and to children of herbicide-exposed Thailand veterans born with spina bifida.
Numerous veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, have praised Congress for the action.
However, John Wells, retired Navy commander and the executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy (which helped file the blue water lawsuit), has criticized the legislation in recent weeks for potentially limiting the scope of veterans affected by adopting a different definition of the area covered than the court ruling.
He said his group will continue lobbying Congress to add those veterans as well.
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The American Legion
“Mr. Procopio is entitled to a presumption of service connection for his prostate cancer and diabetes mellitus. Accordingly, we reverse.”
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Court
And with that statement, Blue Water Navy veterans won a major victory in their fight for VA benefits to treat illnesses linked to exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled Tuesday in favor of Alfred Procopio Jr., who served aboard the USS Intrepid during the war. Procopio, 73, suffers from diabetes and prostate cancer, both of which are linked to Agent Orange exposure.
American Legion National Commander Brett P. Reistad applauded the court’s decision that found no reason to deny VA disability benefits for Procopio, who did not meet the “boots on the ground” criteria for Agent Orange-related VA disability benefits.
“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit echoes what The American Legion, multiple other veterans service organizations and Vietnam War veterans have been arguing since an administrative decision in 2002 cut off benefits to those who were exposed at sea,” Reistad said. “It doesn’t matter where you were exposed to Agent Orange when you served. It only matters that you were exposed when you served. To deny VA disability benefits for victims who were exposed at sea, and to provide benefits only to those veterans who were exposed on the ground, is a distinction based much more on budget than justice.”
The decision comes on the heels of a failed effort to pass H.R. 299, The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, during the final days of the 115th Congress. The legislation would have extended VA disability benefits to tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam. The legislation sailed through the House of Representatives, but came to a crashing halt when a vote for unanimous consent was called in the Senate.
Though Tuesday’s court ruling may be challenged with an appeal from VA within the next 90 days, legislation to lock in a presumption of VA benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange was again introduced during the first days of the new Congress.
Reistad said that the ruling in favor Procopio Jr., “is a step in the right direction” for some 90,000 veterans who served offshore and may be suffering from conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange. VA recognizes 14 adverse conditions as presumptively linked to exposure to the chemical herbicide used to defoliate jungle vegetation that provided the enemy cover during the war.
The American Legion allied with Columbia University during the 1980s and 1990s to provide undeniable evidence that Agent Orange exposure had led to numerous adverse health-care conditions among Vietnam War veterans who came into contact with it.
“This ruling is an important step in a long journey toward justice for all who were exposed, were sickened and disabled by Agent Orange,” Reistad said. “But it is not the final step, and The American Legion will continue to fight in Congress, VA and the courts, if necessary, to definitively return fairness and justice to these affected veterans.”
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By: Leo Shane III
Senior service members would once again be able to share their GI Bill benefits with spouses and children under a provision included in a House panel’s budget bill draft.
The measure was unanimously approved by the House Armed Services Committee during their debate of the annual defense authorization bill on Wednesday. Sponsor Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said the idea is to reverse “a truly lousy decision by the Department of Defense last year.”
The measure still must survive negotiations with the Senate before it becomes law, but supporters said they hope it sends a clear message to Defense Department leaders about their disapproval of the rule change, which blocks troops with more than 16 years of service from transferring their education benefits to a spouse or children.
That move goes into effect on July 12. Military officials in recent weeks have warned affected service members to finish their transfer paperwork before that deadline or lose out on sharing tens of thousands in education benefits with their family.
“This decision … punishes those who have served over a long period of time, maybe got married late or started a family later,” Courtney said. “It cuts them off from being able to get the GI Bill’s really special component of transferability.
“If you talk to service members, it is one of the most popular aspects of the benefit — to have that for their family.”
Service members wounded in combat are exempted from the rule change.
Courtney said reserving the decision would not have a significant financial impact on the federal government but could help with retention and morale.
The post-9/11 GI Bill benefits cover the full cost of in-state tuition plus a monthly living stipend for eligible troops, veterans and family members. Troops must serve six years before they can transfer benefits to a family member.
Officials from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have lobbied for the change in recent months, arguing it unfairly limits benefits promised to service members.
Senate officials have not yet weighed in on the idea.
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Story and Photos by Tim Sproles
It was a beautiful day for a ride, and for The American Legion Riders out of Cicero Post 341 in Cicero, Indiana, it was a good day combat the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A group of more than 100 motorcycles with riders from all over the Hoosier state, traveled to Cicero Saturday to take part in the fourth annual “Battle Ride.”
This annual fundraiser benefits The American Legion program Operation Comfort Warriors, which aims to provide additional comfort items to veterans not normally received while receiving medical treatment.
The program focuses primarily on injured or ill troops with severe injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, the signature wounds of current conflicts.
While the care at many military hospitals and warrior transition units is extraordinary, The American Legion's Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) program was created to provide "non essential" - items that help wounded warriors' recovery but don't usually show up as a budget line on government spreadsheets.
Past National Commander of The American Legion, Jim Koutz, said “I think the Riders out here really understand how hard it is to fight an invisible enemy like traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They do a great job setting this up each year and these Riders go all-out."
According to the U.S, Department of Veterans Affairs, about 20 percent of all the veterans that come back from Afghanistan and Iraq are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
The Battle Ride started at the Cicero Post and made scheduled stops at Fairmount Post 313, Frankton Post 469 and the Lapel American Legion Post 212.
“We traveled about 100 miles and we finished up here at Harley-Davidson of Indianapolis," said Dave Baughman, Director of the Legion Riders Cicero Chapter.
"This is one of the largest Harley-Davidson dealerships in the state and they help support the Battle Ride each year.”
For the owner of Harley-Davidson of Indianapolis, David Dellen, hosting the final stop of the Battle Ride was almost a no-brainer.
“This will be our third year backing up the Battle Ride and we absolutely love it. We look at it as our way of giving back to the brave men and women who put on the uniform and served our country.”
In addition to hosting the closing event, Harley-Davidson of Indianapolis also pledged 5 percent of their sales during the event to OCW.
At the end of the day, the Battle Ride raised over $3,600 for OCW.
“These Rider are so motivated to make a difference” said Koutz.
“They are one of the biggest fundraising groups I have ever seen. I just can’t thank the Cicero Riders enough. They set the bar higher every year and reach it. I just can’t thank them enough for what they do.”
For more information on Operation Comfort Warriors, Click Here.
For more information on The American Legion Riders, Click Here.
Story by Shelby Mullis - The Republic
Army Capt. Jeremy Troutman, center, and Sgt. 1st Class Adam Coakley with Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 152nd Infantry Regiment of the Indiana Army National Guard talk with residents of Silver Oaks Health Campus before leading them in a work out session in Columbus, Ind., Friday, June 7, 2019. Mike Wolanin | The Republic
Silver military dog tags dangled around the necks of nearly 30 senior citizens who participated in physical training led by five members of the National Guard 2-152 Infantry Battalion at Silver Oaks Health Campus.
Friday morning’s training replaced the residents’ routine exercise completed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as part of Silver Oak’s “Back to Basics” Wellness Week. Over the course of the last week, residents completed an obstacle course, toured the Bakalar Air Museum and visited Camp Atterbury.
Life enrichment director Alesa McQueary said they wanted to do something special to cap off the week, which is why they brought in “the best, most fit” guest exercise leaders around.
“The residents have been so excited for everything we’ve done this week,” McQueary said. “Our population, their patriotism is very important to them. It really is the core of their generation. To have these veterans be in this next phase of life but to connect with our current-day individuals in the service, to go to these places and look at the history of their lives, it’s a big deal.”
Staff Sgt. Evan Johnson led the residents in a 30-minute round of stretches and exercises outside the facility to get their blood circulating. They started with a simple march in place, then evolved into hamstring stretches, toe touches and shoulder rotations.
Johnson, who has served in the National Guard for 14 years, said it’s encouraging to see the residents actively participate in some physical training.
“I enjoy helping these folks because stability at their age is a big deal,” Johnson said. “At this age, slips, trips and falls are a serious issue. If I can strengthen their core, back and legs to help them last longer and prevent issue, it’s great.”
Friday’s training session was a first for the Guard — they had never before done their physical training with a group of seniors at Silver Oaks.
Johnson wasn’t doing a drill sergeant routine with the seniors, instead giving an encouraging “good job,” “that looks great” and calling out to individuals when they were able to participate.
The best wellness tip Johnson said he could give was to face each day with a good attitude, something he saw clearly in 94-year-old World War II veteran Jane Williams.
Williams served in the British Royal Navy as a leading writer (which is human resources work) at just 18 years old, and on Friday morning, said the only thing weighing her down was her age. Williams’ husband served in the U.S. Navy for 30 years, including serving in World War II.
“It’s a miracle that I’m here,” Williams said. “I’m pretty lucky to be able to do these exercises at my old age.”
Silver Oaks residents watch Army Staff Sgt. Evan Johnson, with Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 152nd Infantry Regiment of the Indiana Army National Guard demonstrate an exercise during a workout session with residents of Silver Oaks Health Campus in Columbus, Ind., Friday, June 7, 2019. Mike Wolanin | The Republic
By David Chrisinger - The New York Times Magazine
Most of the men in the first wave never stood a chance. In the predawn darkness of June 6, 1944, thousands of American soldiers crawled down swaying cargo nets and thudded into steel landing craft bound for the Normandy coast. Their senses were soon choked with the smells of wet canvas gear, seawater and acrid clouds of powder from the huge naval guns firing just over their heads. As the landing craft drew close to shore, the deafening roar stopped, quickly replaced by German artillery rounds crashing into the water all around them. The flesh under the men’s sea-soaked uniforms prickled. They waited, like trapped mice, barely daring to breathe.
A blanket of smoke hid the heavily defended bluffs above the strip of sand code-named Omaha Beach. Concentrated in concrete pill boxes, nearly 2,000 German defenders lay in wait. The landing ramps slapped down into the surf, and a catastrophic hail of gunfire erupted from the bluffs. The ensuing slaughter was merciless.
But Allied troops kept landing, wave after wave, and by midday they had crossed the 300 yards of sandy killing ground, scaled the bluffs and overpowered the German defenses. By the end of the day, the beaches had been secured and the heaviest fighting had moved at least a mile inland. In the biggest and most complicated amphibious operation in military history, it wasn’t bombs, artillery or tanks that overwhelmed the Germans; it was men — many of them boys, really — slogging up the beaches and crawling over the corpses of their friends that won the Allies a toehold at the western edge of Europe.
That victory was a decisive leap toward defeating Hitler’s Germany and winning the Second World War. It also changed the way America’s most famous and beloved war correspondent reported what he saw. In June 1944, Ernie Pyle, a 43-year-old journalist from rural Indiana, was as ubiquitous in the everyday lives of millions of Americans as Walter Cronkite would be during the Vietnam War. What Pyle witnessed on the Normandy coast triggered a sort of journalistic conversion for him: Soon his readers — a broad section of the American public — were digesting columns that brought them more of the war’s pain, costs and losses. Before D-Day, Pyle’s dispatches from the front were full of gritty details of the troops’ daily struggles but served up with healthy doses of optimism and a reliable habit of looking away from the more horrifying aspects of war. Pyle was not a propagandist, but his columns seemed to offer the reader an unspoken agreement that they would not have to look too closely at the deaths, blood and corpses that are the reality of battle. Later, Pyle was more stark and honest.
For days after the landing, no one back home in the States had any real sense of what was happening, how the invasion was progressing or how many Americans were being killed.
Nearly impossible to imagine today, there were no photographs flashed instantly to the news media. No more than 30 reporters were allowed to cover the initial assault. The few who landed with the troops were hampered by the danger and chaos of battle, and then by censorship and long delays in wire transmission. The first newspaper articles were all based on military news releases written by officers sitting in London. It wasn’t until Pyle’s first dispatch was published that many Americans started to get a sense of the vast scale and devastating costs of the D-Day invasion, chronicled for them by a reporter who had already won their trust and affection.
Before World War II, Pyle spent five years crisscrossing the United States — and much of the Western Hemisphere — in trains, planes and a Dodge convertible coupe with his wife, Jerry, reporting on the ordinary people he met in his travels. He wrote daily, and his columns, enough to fill volumes, were syndicated for publication in local papers around the country. These weren’t hard-news articles; they were human-interest stories that chronicled Americans during the Great Depression. Pyle told stories about life on the road, little oddities and small, heart-lifting triumphs and the misery that afflicted the drought-stricken Dust Bowl regions of the Great Plains.
Pyle honed a sincere and colloquial style of writing that made readers feel as if they were listening to a good friend share an insight or something he noticed that day. When the United States entered World War II, Pyle took that same technique — familiar, open, attuned to the daily struggles of ordinary people — and applied it to covering battles and bombings. Venturing overseas with American forces in 1942, Pyle reported the war through the eyes of the regular infantrymen on the front lines. He wrote about the food, the weather and the despair of living in slit trenches during the rainy late winter of 1943. He asked the soldiers their names and their hometown addresses, which he routinely included in his articles. Soon millions of readers were following Pyle’s daily column in about 400 daily and 300 weekly newspapers across the United States. In May 1944, Pyle was notified that he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches.
90,000 ‘blue water’ Vietnam veterans in line for disability benefits after Justice officials drop appeal
By: Leo Shane III
Troops from the First Cavalry Air Mobile Division watch the carrier USS Boxer after arrival at Qui Nhon, Vietnam, on Sept. 12, 1965. On Tuesday, Department of Justice officials announced they will not appeal a court ruling that will award presumptive disability benefits to thousands of so-called "blue water" Vietnam veterans. (AP file photo)
The Department of Justice will drop its appeal of a federal court decision awarding disability benefits to tens of thousands of veterans who claim exposure to cancer-causing chemical defoliants while serving in the seas near Vietnam, handing advocates what appears to be a final legal victory.
In a filing with the Supreme Court Tuesday, Justice Department officials said they will not argue for overturning the Procopio vs. Wilkie decision from January which undid years of Veterans Affairs policy denying benefits to about 90,000 “blue water” Navy veterans.
Congressional Budget Office officials had estimated that awarding the benefits to the blue water veterans could total about $1.1 billion over 10 years, but VA officials in the past have estimated the total could rise to more than $5.5 billion.
Justice lawyers had twice asked for deadline extensions to file an appeal, even as VA officials publicly said they believed the lower court decision should stand. Congressional leaders and outside advocates had also argued against an appeal.
In a statement, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., and ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said they were “encouraged by DOJ’s decision not to appeal Procopio and further delay benefits to our Blue Water Navy veterans.”
At issue is a VA decision in the past to treat the sailors’ disability benefit claims differently from other troops who served in Vietnam.
Under current rules, the blue water veterans can receive medical care for their illnesses through VA. But to receive disability benefits — worth up to several thousand dollars a month — they must prove that their ailments are directly connected to toxic exposure while on duty.
That’s not the case for other Vietnam veterans, who are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and other defoliants known to cause serious and rare cancers.
So while a veteran who served on the shoreline could receive disability payouts after contracting Parkinson’s Disease or prostate cancer, another vet who served on a ship a few miles away would have to provide evidence of direct contact with hazardous chemicals.
Advocates have argued that is impossible, given the time that has elapsed since the exposure and the poor toxic exposure monitoring at the time.
In a 9-2 decision in January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed, stating that that Congress never intended to exclude servicemembers in the seas around Vietnam when they awarded presumptive benefits for illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure.
John Wells, retired Navy commander and the executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy (which helped file the Procopio lawsuit), said the Department of Justice decision means their fight is effectively over.
Last month, House lawmakers unanimously passed legislation echoing the court decision in an effort to ensure any future appeal or legal challenge would not overturn the benefits.
Roe and Takano on Tuesday urged their Senate counterparts to pass the measure anyway, noting that it also includes expansion of certain presumptive benefits to troops who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and to children of herbicide-exposed Thailand veterans born with spina bifida.
But Wells argued that the legislation actually pulled back parts of the court ruling, more narrowly defining the territorial waters where ships had to travel for veterans to be located.
“Now we don’t need the bill at all,” he said.
VA officials had already begun to process some blue water veterans benefits since the January decision, and are expecting that caseload to rise now that the court decision is final.
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