Blue Water Veterans case could have ‘huge financial’ implications Houston County Vietnam vets, widows of vets encouraged to visit VSO

By : 
Jordan Gerard

Navy veterans and widows of Navy veterans who served in the Vietnam War are encouraged to visit the Houston County Veteran Services Office in order to file a claim if they served on ships in Vietnam’s territorial waters.

If so, those veterans and widows of veterans could be awarded disability benefits previously denied to them if they have an illness that is associated with Agent Orange.

On Jan. 29, 2019, the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Navy veterans who served in Vietnam on ships off the coast of the Southeast Asian country.

Houston County Veterans Services Officer Robert Theon said the decision overturns the former ruling that the Veterans Affairs (VA) office took on the Agent Orange issue.

“It was [previously] only applicable to vets who had ‘boots on the ground,’” Theon explained. “Now the argument is that when Agent Orange was used, it would run off the soil into inland waters and eventually out to sea. The ships would suck it up, and sailors used it for cooking, cleaning, showering and more.”

The Navy has 90 days from Jan. 29 to file an appeal, which puts that deadline on April 29. 

The official name is H.R. 299, or the Blue Water Veterans Act of 2019, which would prevent the VA from “arbitrarily stripping veterans of their earned benefits.”

The case name is Procopio v. Wilkie, and was initiated by Navy veteran Alfred Procopio Jr., of Spring Lake Park, Minn. 

He was denied service connection for prostate cancer and diabetes mellitus because he was never on the ground in Vietnam nor served on the inland waters, but did serve on the USS Intrepid, which was stationed inside Vietnam’s territorial waters.

Theon said the Navy is coming out with a list of ships that served within 12 nautical miles off the Republic of Vietnam that could qualify veterans for benefits. The National Veterans of Foreign Wars Post is working with the federal VA on defining territorial waters near Vietnam.

Until the April 29 deadline and that list are published, Theon is looking for naval veterans who know or think they served during that time frame. Vets who served on inland waters in Vietnam already qualify for benefits.

“I encourage any naval vets of that time and area to come in and talk to me about what it means for them,” he said. “Widows of those vets who have passed ... [there] could be retro-payment for them as well.”

It’s important vets or widows talk to Theon about an “Intent to File” form now, instead of waiting for the final decision. Essentially, the form is a “stake in the ground” that lasts for one year. A vet could fill out an “Intent to File” form and then officially file the claim in December 2019, or when they’re ready.

“I don’t want people to lose out on months of money,” Theon said. Because he has to gather information from medical records, the claim takes time to put together.

Even if veterans or widows have been denied benefits in the past, they could now be eligible with the court decision.

Agent Orange has a list of about 13 to 15 presumptive conditions including AL Amyloidosis, Chronic B-cell Leukemias, Chloracne (or similar acneform disease), Diabetes Mellitus Type 2, Hodgkin’s Disease, Ischemic Heart Diease, Multiple Myeloma, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Parkinson’s Disease, Peripheral Neuropathy – Early-Onset (within one year of exiting service), Porphyria Cutanea Tarda, prostate cancer, respiratory cancer (including lung cancer) and Soft Tissue Sarcomas (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma or mesothelioma).

Theon added the list is always evolving with different diseases that could have developed as a result of having contact with Agent Orange.

“Sometimes [vets] have to prove the condition is from their military service,” he said. “Every time a Navy vet has said that, the VA denied it, saying [the vet] didn’t have exposure to Agent Orange. For decades now, then they started admitting to it.”

The issue is “picking up” steam, but even if VA denies the benefits or the Navy appeals, it’s still important for veterans to update their information with Theon.

“It has huge financial implications for the vets in Houston County,” he added. “There are still Vietnam vets that haven’t done anything with the VA. Let me help determine if you’re qualified or not.”

Even if the vet was diagnosed with a heart condition in the 1980s and they were denied then, they could be eligible now. If that’s true, then the VA has to go back to the date of the diagnosis and pay the vet up until present time.

There is no charge for talking to Theon, filing a claim with his office or any service that he provides. 

His position is mandated by state law and is a non-biased entity to help veterans navigate the federal VA. Minnesota is one of 27 states to provide the help. For states that don’t have positions like Theon’s, lawyers can help, but at a cost.

In addition to helping vets find available benefits, Theon also takes time to transport vets to medical appointments and visit vets in assisted living homes or nursing homes.

“It can be absolutely life changing if a vet gives me an hour of their time,” he said. “Widows could also get health care.”

Houston County has about 1,500 vets, which is about 7.3 percent of its population. About 511 vets are in the 64- to 74-age range, who mostly served in Vietnam and Korea. 

In total, the court decision could affect an estimated 90,000 Navy vets.

According to Military Times, VA officials estimated claims that are awarded could total more than $5 billion. Congressional Budget officials tallied the total at $1.1 billion over 10 years.

To contact Theon, call him at 507-725-5805.