American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Director Chanin Nuntavong testifies before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 1. Photo by Zach Gibson/The American Legion

Legion testifies on Blue Water Navy veterans and TAP

American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division Director Chanin Nuntavong testified Aug. 1 before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. During his testimony, Nuntavong highlighted the importance of providing Blue Water Vietnam veterans with the same benefits provided to those who served on land and in Vietnam’s inland waterways by the Agent Orange Act of 1991.

“H.R. 299 is a massive step forward in recognizing the men who were impacted by Agent Orange,” Nuntavong said. “And it’s time we, as a nation, give veterans the benefits they deserve.”

H.R. 299, The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, passed unanimously out of the House on June 25, with a vote of 382-0. However, the legislation is strongly opposed by Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials.

“In the case of this legislation, we should be very clear on the precedent this bill attempts to create and the broad effects it will have over time,” said Paul Lawrence, under secretary for benefits at the VA, citing insufficient evidence from the Institute of Medicine to support claims of Agent Orange exposure. “This invites other sympathetic causes without valid science to petition Congress for compensation.

“We oppose this bill because the science is not there, and we depend on science,” he said. “We care, so we keep looking.”

Another issue addressed by Nuntavong was Mare Island Cemetery. The cemetery fell into disrepair as an unintended consequence of Base Realignment and Closure, which was designed to evaluate and close military installations that are deemed no longer essential to the national defense.

“The proposal in S. 2881 is simple, Mr. Chairman,” Nuntavong said. “Transfer the cemetery that has more than 850, including three Medal of Honor recipients, to the VA’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA), whose mission is to ensure those who have departed us are treated with the respect they deserve. We firmly believe NCA is the best and only authority to restore Mare Island Cemetery to greatness.”

Nuntavong also highlighted the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) during his testimony.

“Ensuring servicemembers receive world-class training as they transition out of the military has been, and always will be, a priority of The American Legion,” he said. “The draft bill before you would increase the number of DoD (Department of Defense) TAP employees; collect data for studying long-term effectiveness; and establish a governing board to help prevent overdoses, suicide and alcoholism.”

The American Legion supports the draft legislation, but recommends changes be made to require commanding officers to attend TAP; require the DoD to report data to Congress on troops who have completed TAP; and eliminate the post-secondary education assessment.

“The (VA) was without Senate-confirmed leadership for 124 days,” Nuntavong concluded. “The American Legion stands ready to assist Secretary Wilkie in doing what is best for veterans.”