WASHINGTON (WFLA) – Vietnam veterans who served in the Navy hauled the VA into federal court Friday morning.

The Blue Water Navy veterans contend the VA is illegally withholding disability benefits they earned when they were exposed to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange.

For nearly 20 years, the VA stood firm claiming the veterans, who served on ships in Vietnam’s waters, were not exposed.

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Earlier this year, a court ordered the VA to begin processing and awarding disability benefits to these veterans. But in early July, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie imposed a stay.

In court, Commander John Wells of Military Veterans Advocacy argued the VA overstepped its authority and the stay should immediately be lifted.

Assisted now by walkers, wheelchairs and canes, several Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans marched from the courthouse to VA headquarters.

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Mike Kvintus of New Port Richey, the national vice commander of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association, says they’re running out of time.

Blue Water Navy veterans demonstrate outside the VA in Washington, D.C.

“We know of at least 10 Blue Water Navy sailors that we’re aware of that’s died since the stay was enacted July 1,” Kvintus explained.

According to John Wells, the stay was not lifted but veterans got something else.

“A definite concession from the government as far as the stay itself and the statement they will not extend that stay,” Wells stated. He called it a big strategic victory.

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Wells added that judges told him the fastest way to resolve the issue is to let the stay expire because they are not likely to make a decision before that. They also instructed the VA that it was not to extend the stay beyond Jan. 1.

The military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Exposure is linked to several deadly diseases.

Veterans marched from federal court to VA headquarters demanding the stay on their benefits be lifted.

The powerful herbicide ran into rivers. It ended up offshore, where ships like the American Victory, now docked in Tampa, ingested saltwater then converted it to potable water for drinking, cooking and bathing. The process enhanced the Agent Orange.

Claiming they were not exposed, the VA stripped Agent Orange-related disability and health care benefits from Blue Water Navy Veterans in 2002.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie insists he had the legal authority to impose the stay but promised it will end come Jan. 1.

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“We’re going to be the only federal department open for business on New Year’s day and we will be processing those claims,” Wilkie said.

Outside the VA, as Taps was played, the Blue Water Navy veterans held posters of those who died from Agent Orange-related illnesses but went to their graves before receiving a dime in VA disability benefits they deserved.

If you know of something that you think should be investigated call our 8 On Your Side Helpline at 1-800-338-0808 or contact Steve Andrews via email at sandrews@wfla.com