Government Affairs Committee Update July/August 2021

BY PETE PETERSON, CHAIR

VVA congratulates VA Secretary Denis McDonough for his decision to immediately implement provisions of the William M. Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (P.L. 116-283) by adding bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism to the list of conditions presumptively service connected to Agent Orange.

We are thankful for Secretary McDonough’s swift action, as called for in VVA’s May 24 letter, in accelerating these long-overdue benefits. Vietnam veterans have been severely affected by these diseases for years without desperately needed health care and compensatory relief. For these veterans, presumptive service connection means receiving disability compensation, as well as life-saving VA medical care.

Additionally, Secretary McDonough announced that VA will apply the provisions of court orders related to Nehmer v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which may result in an earlier date for entitlement to benefits for Vietnam veterans and their survivors who had previously filed and were denied benefits for one of the three new presumptive conditions. These veterans will have their cases automatically reviewed without the need to refile a claim, and the VA will send letters to them and to survivors.

Too many of our fellow Vietnam veterans have gone to their graves waiting for their government to do the right thing and grant service connection for exposure to Agent Orange and other rainbow defoliant agents. History will reflect that President Biden was our savior, because his Secretary of Veterans Affairs made the moral and ethical decision to keep faith with dying veterans to ensure that our nation finally delivered on its promise to care for those of us who have borne the battle.

VVA encourages all veterans filing new claims for the three new presumptives—bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism—to work with a trained professional accredited Veteran Service Officer associated with a Veteran Service Organization or a State Veteran Service Office. Do not try to file these claims on your own. VBA states that it will take 153.1 days to complete a disability claim https://www.va.gov/disability/how-to-file-claim The Veterans Benefits Administration has a hotline, 800-827-1000, operated Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. EST.

REVERSAL ON MILITARY SEXUAL TRAUMA

Vietnam Veterans of America approves the recent decision of Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley to drop his opposition to policy changes on how the military handles sexual assault, and his new openness to removing military sexual assault investigations from the chain of command.

We welcome the leadership of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who formed an independent review commission to carry out a critical, 90-day review of Pentagon policies and procedures on the handling of sexual assaults. This major reversal of military practice on the part of the Joint Chiefs follows the review commission’s recommendation that the prosecution of service members for sexual assault be made by independent authorities.

VVA has been at the forefront in the fight for justice for women and men in the armed forces who have suffered sexual trauma and harassment. This reversal of military practice, which comes amid mounting pressure from both the administration and Congress, is long overdue.

On Capitol Hill, we support the tenacious leadership of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) who has long led the charge, building bipartisan support for this change, and her 42 Senate colleagues who stand with her. We encourage swift passage of S.1520, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act of 2021.

For more than a decade, VVA and other veterans’ advocates have pushed for changing the way the U.S. military handles military sexual assault cases, including advocating that these cases be adjudicated outside the chain of command. This disturbing climate in our military is unacceptable and has existed for far too long.

As veterans, we know only too well the power and constraints that military commanders can—and often do—exert on those who have come forward to report assaults and indignities. These crimes go unreported, and until now, silence has been the only safe choice for active-duty men and women who have been betrayed by the chain of command.

Contact your member of Congress in support of S.1520, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act.

POW/MIA FLAG OVER THE WHITE HOUSE

As of April 9, the POW/MIA flag is once again flying over the White House. This flag symbolizes the nation’s commitment to resolving the fate of those still listed as prisoner, missing, and unaccounted for from all conflicts.

The POW/MIA flag had flown over the White House under the American flag since the 1990s. On June 14, 2020, Flag Day, the previous administration ordered the POW/ MIA flag relocated, despite having signed into law the National POW/MIA Flag Act on Nov. 7, 2019. That law mandated that the flag would forever be visible from all federal buildings, including the White House. President Biden chose April 9 as the appropriate day to restore the flag to its rightful place, as it is Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day.

BIPARTISAN TOXIC EXPOSURE LEGISLATION

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chair Jon Tester introduced the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops (COST) of War Act of 2021, which recognizes the federal government’s responsibility to provide health care and disability compensation to veterans fighting the effects of toxic exposure connected to their military service.

This legislation would allow all veterans who were at risk of toxic exposure, including 3.5 million Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, to obtain immediate and lifelong access to health care from VA. It would also establish a new science-based and veteran-focused process for the establishment of new presumptive conditions, and would provide benefits to thousands of veterans who have been ignored or forgotten, including veterans suffering from Agent Orange-related hypertension.

You can read the proposed legislation here.

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chair Mark Takano (D-Calif.) has introduced the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021, also known as the Honoring our PACT Act. The bill would provide health care for as many as 3.5 million veterans exposed to airborne hazards and burn pits; streamline VA’s review process; finally concede exposure to airborne hazards and burn pits; require medical exams and opinions; establish a presumption of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers related to burn pits and airborne hazards exposure; create a presumption of exposure to radiation; expand Agent Orange exposure and add hypertension and MGUS to the list of presumptions; and require the VA to provide standardized training, conduct outreach, commission studies, and improve data collection between VA and DOD.

That legislation can be viewed here.

Action Needed

For more than a decade, Vietnam Veterans of America has sought legislation to restore presumptive Agent Orange exposure status to members of the Armed Forces who served in the territorial waters of Vietnam.

Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have introduced S. 810, The Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act of 2021. In the House of Representatives, Reps. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) and Pete Stauber (R-Minn.) have introduced a companion bill, H.R. 1972, with the same title.

These bills would add hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of unspecified significance (MGUS) as presumptive diseases for Agent Orange exposure and provide access to VA benefits and healthcare for hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans.

VVA strongly supports S. 810 and H.R. 1972, and we will work with Congress to ensure passage of this bipartisan, bicameral legislation to restore equity to all Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange.

Go to https://vva.org/what-we-do/veterans-advocacy/legislative-action-center/ and send the prepared letter to your member in support for S.810 and H.R.1972.




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