Armed Forces News

Blue water veterans of the Vietnam War who believe they are now sick because of exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange have a prevailed in a key fight for benefits. On Jan. 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that a former sailor named Alfred Procopio, Jr., is entitled to treatment by the Department of Veterans Affairs for the diabetes and cancer from which he now suffers. The illnesses are service-related, the court decided, overturning an earlier ruling against him by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Procopio served on the carrier Intrepid between 1964 and 1967, on missions that took the ship close to the Vietnamese coastline where Agent Orange had been sprayed in the effort to destroy the vegetative cover that obstructed the view of enemy movements.
Once he became sick, VA’s Board of Veterans Appeals and lower courts alike ruled that he did not meet the standards for service connection – even though both of his illnesses are on the list of presumed conditions. The lower actions cited a presumption that Intrepid’s operations were far enough away to be considered outside the zone where Agent Orange exposure could pose health problems. The Federal Circuit panel specifically disagreed with the contention that Procopio would have had to step foot on Vietnamese soil or operate in very close proximity in order to qualify for VA treatment.
“Congress has spoken directly to the question of whether those who served in the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of the “Republic of Vietnam” are entitled” to benefits, Circuit Judge Kimberly A. Moore wrote in the majority opinion. “Mr. Procopio is entitled to a presumption of service connection.”
The ruling effectively sends Procopio’s case back to the lower courts for reconsideration. It also sets the stage for the Supreme Court to possibly step in and make a final determination of sick blue water veterans’ claims of service connection. Late last year, Congress rejected measures that would have extended coverage to them. VA also has taken a stand against granting such benefits. If the Federal Circuit’s ruling is allowed to stand, more than 90,000 veterans could become eligible for treatment.