The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee voted Wednesday to rewrite an important part of Vietnam War history. As a result, hundreds of indigent Vietnam veterans moved a step closer to receiving disability benefits.
For the purpose of awarding disability payments, Congress long has specified that the Vietnam War began Aug. 5, 1964, when North Vietnamese gunboats attacked two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.
But by 1964, U.S. military advisers to the South Vietnamese army already had been serving in Vietnam for several years, and veterans groups argue that the starting date chosen by Congress was arbitrary and unfair.
The provision that the committee approved Wednesday, as part of an omnibus veterans benefits bill, was championed by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y. It would push back the starting date of the war to Feb. 28, 1961, when U.S. advisers began accompanying South Vietnamese troops on operations.
Moving back the war's starting date would grant recognition of wartime service to 16,500 veterans who served in Vietnam from 1961 to 1964, said Ken McKinnon, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Of that total, about 280 indigent veterans who suffer from non-military disabilities or from service-related ailments would be eligible for disability benefits.
(Disabilities resulting from combat, regardless of the year in which the combat occurred, fall in an entirely different category and are not a subject of the current dispute.)
The additional benefits would cost the government about $2.4-million in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, McKinnon said. Each of the affected veterans could receive several thousand dollars a year, depending on income and family size.
Approval by the full Senate is expected in September.
That would be the fifth time that the provision had won Senate passage. On each of the four previous occasions, a handful of influential House members blocked the measure, saying they feared creating a precedent for changes dealing with other wars.