Friday, June 29, 2018WASHINGTON — The House unanimously passed legislation Monday that would extend Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to approximately 90,000 sailors who served off the coast during the Vietnam War, some of whom have been fighting for years to prove their illnesses were caused by exposure to Agent Orange.Lawmakers voted 382-0 in favor of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which must go to the Senate for final approval. It provides eligibility for disability compensation to “Blue Water” Navy veterans — those sailors aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships who contend they were exposed to Agent Orange through the ships’ water systems. The dioxin-laden herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.“Every day, thousands of brave veterans who served in the Vietnam War fight the health effects of Agent Orange exposure,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., the bill’s lead sponsor. “It is far past time we pass this critical legislation and give them the comfort and care they deserve.”Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the legislation would correct a “long-standing injustice.”A VA policy decision in 2002 stripped Blue Water Navy veterans of their eligibility for compensation, unless they could prove they set foot in Vietnam. Bills were introduced in 2011, 2013 and 2015 to address the problem, but progress stalled because of cost concerns.Extending the benefits for 10 years would cost $1.1 billion, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. To make up the cost, the legislation raises fees for servicemembers and veterans who use the VA’s home loan program. The increase amounts to between $2.14 and $2.95 each month.“It has taken years of dedicated advocacy and bipartisanship to get us here today,” Takano said. “Finding over $1 billion in the federal budget is not an easy task. The solution in this bill is fair.”Two Army combat veterans support federal legislation would “direct the Secretary of Defense to include in periodic health assessments, separation history and physical examinations, and other assessments an evaluation of whether a member of the Armed Forces has been exposed to open burn pits or toxic airborne chemicals,” according to the text of the bill.The legislation, H.R. 5671, Burn Pits Accountability Act, introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), an Iraq veteran, and cosponsored by Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), an Afghanistan veteran and double amputee, addresses this important topic – especially to our veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.The bill seeks to address a problem experienced by many of my fellow veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have been exposed to open burn pits and other toxic chemicals while deployed and who have themselves later become afflicted with rare cancers and other health issues. These veterans, when addressing their health issues with the VA, have been consistently told it is – like was said for many years with regard to veterans exposed to Agent Orange – not supported by science.The Burn Pits Accountability Act would evaluate the exposure of U.S. servicemembers and veterans to open burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals by:Requiring the Secretary of Defense to record whether servicemembers have been “based or stationed at a location where an open burn pit was used or exposed to toxic airborne chemicals, including any information recorded as part of the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry,” in Periodic Health Assessments (PHAs), Separation History Physical Examination (SHPEs), and Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHAs).