Bobby Daniels is a 79-year-old Blue Water Navy Vietnam veteran. He has terminal prostate cancer, a disease linked to Agent Orange exposure, and may not live to see next year.
He's still waiting on the Department of Veterans Affairs to grant him benefits for his exposure to Agent Orange during his service on board the USS Lexington off the coast of Vietnam, 1960-64.
Daniels and his wife Judy were forced to take out a second mortgage on their Missouri home to pay for medical expenses not covered by the VA -- and the longer the wait for a benefits decision, the more likely it is that Daniels may not live to see his claim granted at all. Daniels was on Capitol Hill Tuesday, to advocate for his fellow veterans.
Daniels said he's "not much of a spokesman, but what you'll hear is from the heart."
"Like many of my shipmates, I felt like we had finally landed a major victory in June when they signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act into law," Daniels said. "After decades of waiting, we finally had hope that our service and sacrifices would be recognized. But less than a week went by before they pulled that rug from beneath us and snatched the victory away. It hurt ... It felt like somebody sledgehammered me in the mouth."
About a week after Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law the Blue Water Vietnam Veterans Act -- a long-awaited measure to grant benefits to certain veterans who served in the waters off of Vietnam -- VA Secretary Robert Wilkie issued a stay on processing any Blue Water claims until January 2020, as first reported by Connecting Vets.
"Less than a week later, our joy turned to dismay when VA Secretary Wilkie issued a blanket stay," said Shane Liermann, Disabled American Veterans national legislative director.
In response, Liermann said VSOs and other veterans advocates appealed to VA to withdraw or modify the stay so the sickest, poorest and oldest Blue Water Navy veterans could begin receiving benefits.
"We have recently received a response from the secretary and it is apparent that our pleas have fallen on deaf ears," he said.
So, DAV, Vietnam Veterans of America, AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Military Officers Association of America, VFW, Military Order of the Purple Heart and other VSOs sent a letter to the White House Tuesday asking President Donald Trump to lift the stay himself.
"President Trump has the authority and the responsibility to change the secretary's decision and allow VA to begin processing Blue Water Navy claims now," Liermann said. "President Trump can and should end the wait today."
Daniels says he lives with chronic pain he can "hardly endure" because of his cancer. But what he truly "cannot deal with is that we Vietnam veterans have been forgotten and abandoned by the VA. The VA would rather delay our claims until we're too weak to fight ... or until we're gone and our voices fade away in silence. They don't know how tough us old boys can be."
Daniels, tears in his voice, said he worried for his wife, a former school teacher who has been by his side for 56 years, and who he fears he will leave without benefits if VA does not process his claim soon.
"My biggest fear now is leaving her behind to struggle through tough times alone," he said. "This is a thought I cannot bear."
Sometimes, late at night, after his wife has gone to bed, Daniels said he gets out of bed and steps outside his rural Missouri home "and I scream into the darkness. Because that's where I'm at. I have so much fear and anxiety bottled up inside me not knowing how long I'll be here or how my wife and son will survive without my help financially."
But Daniels maintained that he was only one example of a far larger group of veterans in need.
"It's not all about me," he said. "It's about those other boys out there."
Claudia Holt's husband of 42 years, Frank, died May 13, just a few short weeks before the Blue Water bill passed into law. Frank served in Vietnam during the same time Daniels did, aboard the USS Pritchett. Claudia gave up her career as a nurse to care for Frank.
For two decades, Frank suffered from illnesses, including lung cancer, because of toxic exposure in Vietnam. Now, Claudia is left seeking survivor benefits, which VA has also stayed.
"He said 'You fought for me, and now you fight for you,'" Claudia said Tuesday. "Here I am, 78 years old, worried about how I will pay my bills ... How sad that the VA would let a veteran die with this burden looming over them. How shameful that they let my husband die, not knowing what would happen to his family ... This is wrong. I lost my husband, how much more will I lose?"
Claudia told Connecting Vets she thinks Frank would be "beaming" if he knew she was speaking up for him, and veterans like him.
"I know he'd be very proud," she said, tears in her eyes. "I know he's looking down on me."
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said repeated attempts to get information from VA on the stay have come up largely empty, and invitations to roundtable meetings have been refused.
"Is it really necessary to stay all of these claims, or can we help some of these veterans today?" Takano asked, adding that it is "cruel and unusual" for VA to make Blue Water Veterans wait.
Takano said Congress anticipates VA may need "hundreds of new employees" to do the work of processing Blue Water claims. "We asked VA what they need, but we're still waiting for an answer. In the meantime, Vietnam-era veterans are still sick and facing delays for their needed benefits and care."
"These veterans bravely served this country in Vietnam but they're still awaiting recognition for their service and for the benefits they've earned and they and their families are entitled to," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said at the "End the Wait" press conference outside the Capitol, Tuesday. "Now we have to make sure the VA keeps up its end of the bargain by actually issuing the benefits that are due these veterans."
"We're all here today because we're concerned," Tester said of the members of Congress, veterans service organizations and media gathered in front of the Senate steps. "But I don't know that I feel that same level of concern from the VA."
VA has also "dragged their feet" on adding other illnesses to the list of presumptive health care concerns for Vietnam veterans that qualify for benefits.
"We've already seen the toll taken on Blue Water Navy veterans forced to wait decades," Tester said. "Veterans suffering from these service-related illnesses shouldn't have to wait another day. Time is of the essence."