Chairman Takano – H.R. 299 Is Clearest Route to Finally Deliver Benefits to Blue Water Navy Veterans

House of Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Chairman Mark Takano

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) delivered remarks and presented an updated version of H.R. 299, before the first Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs legislative hearing. Below is a link to the video of the Chairman’s statement and his remarks as prepared:

Thank you Madam Chair. 

First, I want to thank you for including H.R. 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, in this legislative hearing.

Today, I again advocate for this critically important bill.  Last Congress saw its unanimous passage under the leadership of Chairman Roe, but unfortunately it stalled in the Senate.  As Chairman of the Committee this Congress, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 was the first piece of legislation I introduced.  This year, with a new path forward, I’m confident we’ll finally see this bill passed into law.

I am delighted that today marks the first meeting of the DAMA Subcommittee, whose consistently bipartisan approach sets it apart.  Together, Dr. Roe and I present an updated version of H.R. 299 following the Federal Circuit Court’s decision in Procopio.  That case reversed VA’s 1997 decision to deny the presumption of Agent Orange exposure to veterans who served in the offshore waters of Vietnam. 

Procopio was a huge step forward but we need more.  We need to ensure Blue Water veterans are protected in the event Procopio is appealed to the Supreme Court and overturned.  That is why Congress worked together with Veteran Service Organizations to establish, without a doubt, that Blue Water Navy veterans are entitled to this presumption. 

Our current proposal is very similar to the bill passed last Congress.  It includes crucial “geocoordinates” that clarify the territory off the coast of Vietnam that VA must recognize when deciding claims for disability compensation for herbicide-related diseases.  This proposal is the quickest and clearest route to delivering benefits to these deserving veterans. 

Additionally, our bill extends the presumption of herbicide exposure to certain veterans of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, easing the pathway to disability benefits for these who develop herbicide-related diseases.  Our bill also expands benefits to children with spina bifida of herbicide-exposed Thailand veterans.  These comprehensive provisions ensure we deliver essential benefits to those suffering the ill effects of herbicide exposure.

Because the majority of DAMA members are new to Congress, it is important that we hold a hearing to reacquaint ourselves with the key issues and hear views on the draft bill.  I want to welcome the American Legion, VFW, DAV, Vietnam Veterans of America, and the American Academy of Sciences for being here to help us discuss the important bills in front of us today. 

Regrettably, VA has chosen not to offer any testimony on H.R. 299 today.  The VA has sent a witness to provide views on the six other bills on the agenda, but not on HR 299.  We welcome him, but I would like to make it clear that the Agency was asked to send a witness who could testify on its plans for implementing Blue Water. To achieve the best results for veterans, we must have their cooperation going forward.  It is regrettable that they are not providing this information to Congress since it is our obligation to oversee their plans for the implementation of what is now the law of the land. 

Before yielding back I also want to welcome and introduce distinguished Professor Allison Hedge-Coke of the University of California at Riverside, who has produced some of the best work in the country as part of VA’s Veterans Legacy Program.  Her research on the veterans buried in the Riverside National Veterans Cemetery and her creation of teaching curricula for local teachers is remarkable in the energy and attention it brings to the Cemetery.  Her students use her educational programs to revitalize the stories of the men and women buried there.

I look forward to Professor Hedge-Coke’s testimony on Mr. Lamb’s bill, which changes the current Veterans Legacy Project from a federal contract program to a federal grant program. Institutions like UC Riverside tell us that management of grants is administratively easier than management of contracts for colleges and universities.  We want to do whatever we can to encourage the work of academics like Professor Hedge-Coke who help us understand and appreciate the heroism and sacrifices of local servicemembers. 

So thank you, Professor, for traveling so far to join us today.  We very much look forward to hearing from you.

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