Connecting Vets: Senators introduce bill to expand VA benefits for thousands of 'forgotten' Vietnam veterans

by Abbie Bennett

Two Senators introduced bipartisan legislation in Congress this week aimed at expanding Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to “forgotten” Vietnam vets.

The “Forgotten Vietnam Veterans Act” would expand wartime benefits to veterans who served in the Vietnam War but have so far been ineligible for assistance because of a disagreement between the Pentagon and VA on when exactly the war happened.

The Defense Department currently recognizes the Vietnam War era as Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975. But VA, using the dates established by Congress, maintains the Vietnam War era is Feb. 28, 1961 to May 7, 1975, making any veterans who served in the conflict prior to 1961 ineligible for wartime benefits at VA such as pensions and health care.

Those “forgotten” Vietnam veterans include members of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). MAAG is a designation for U.S. military advisors sent to other nations to help in training conventional armed forces and providing military aid. More than 3,200 MAAGs served in the Vietnam War, Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and John Boozman, R-Ark., said in a news release announcing the bill Thursday.

The legislation intends to correct the date disagreement and extend benefits to the MAAG vets, though it was not immediately clear how many are still living.

“As a nation, we have an obligation to ensure that the men and women who served in Vietnam are properly recognized – and honored – for their sacrifices,” said Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “Our bipartisan bill will alter the federal government’s timeline to reflect our country’s official involvement in the Vietnam War, rightfully extending wartime benefits to veterans previously excluded from receiving the benefits they deserve.”

“Expanding the VA’s statutory definition of the Vietnam War era will ensure MAAG veterans are eligible for benefits they earned,” Boozman said. “Our legislation will correct the error that has prevented them from receiving benefits they are rightly due.”

The bill already has support from the VFW, American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America.

“More than 3,000 veterans served in Vietnam from November 1, 1955 to February 27, 1961, ten of whom were killed in action,” said Matthew Doyle, deputy director for national legislative service at VFW. “However, veterans who served in Vietnam prior to February 28, 1961 are not considered wartime veterans and likewise are ineligible for certain VA benefits. The VFW is proud to support this legislation, which would change the statutory definition of Vietnam veteran to include those who served in the Republic of Vietnam beginning on November 1, 1955.”

“This legislation, when enacted into law, will make right an historic wrong,” said John Rowan, national president and CEO of VVA.

A companion bill was introduced in the House by Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Calif.

A year ago this week, Congress passed and the president signed into law the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, expanding benefits to sailors who served during the war off the coast of Vietnam who may have been exposed to Agent Orange.

About a week later, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie delayed all claims processing for those veterans until Jan. 1, 2020.