Vietnam War veterans continue to be affected from exposure to a toxic substance, and a state veterans affairs representative said many of those former soldiers still don’t know they can receive benefits to take care of health-related costs for certain conditions.
Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America and state and local veterans affairs representatives were on hand for an “Agent Orange Town Hall” held at Keith Street Church of God of Prophecy Tuesday night, where some 50 area veterans and family members learned more about the issue and asked questions.
Between 1962 and 1975, U.S. military personnel employed a plan known as “Operation Ranch Hand” in order to keep enemy forces in sight. Herbicides were used to strip forests in Vietnam of plants and leaves so there would be no places to hide.
One commonly used herbicide was nicknamed Agent Orange because of an orange-colored stripe on the barrels in which it was stored. The herbicide contained a dioxin — tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin — that has since been shown to cause negative health effects and prompted the federal government to extend additional benefits to veterans exposed to it.
Don Smith, the assistant veterans affairs commissioner for East Tennessee, said he meets many veterans and family members of veterans who do not know which benefits are available to them.
“We still have many Vietnam veterans who are not aware of the benefits they are eligible for,” Smith said.
However, there are many misconceptions about the blend of herbicides known as Agent Orange.
For example, he said he has met some veterans who have sought out help from veterans affairs offices because they say they “have” it.
“Unless you have a vial of it in your pocket, you don’t have Agent Orange,” Smith said.
However, it is possible for past exposure to the substance to cause health problems.
For many years, veterans and their spouses were told they could not receive service-related medical benefits for certain health issues because those issues were not believed to be related to what they or their spouse encountered while serving, he said.
However, that changed when Congress passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991, which allowed the secretary of veterans affairs to compile a list of conditions that were “presumptive.” Now, if a veteran deals with one of those issues and served in areas where Agent Orange was believed to be handled or used, they can receive service-related health benefits.
While some health conditions on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ “presumptive” list have been there since the federal act was passed, the list has changed over the years. Smith said that could mean that someone who has been denied benefits in the past could potentially qualify today.
The list of conditions on the official list of presumed health effects include: AL Amyloidosis, Chronic B-cell Leukemias, Chloracne (or similar acneform disease), Diabetes Mellitus Type 2, Hodgkin’s Disease, Ischemic Heart Disease, Multiple Myeloma, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Parkinson’s Disease, Peripheral Neuropathy, Porphyria Cutanea Tarda, Prostate Cancer, Respiratory Cancers (including lung cancer) and Soft Tissue Sarcomas.
Smith noted three of those conditions — Peripheral Neuropathy, Porphyria Cutanea Tarda and Chloracne — must have been diagnosed as being “10 percent disabling” within a year of leaving active service.
He also pointed out that three others have been added to the list as recently as 2010 — Chronic B-cell Leukemias, Ischemic Heart Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. If someone tried to apply for extra health benefits after being diagnosed prior to 2010, they may be able to receive those benefits now.
He encouraged those present at the meeting to share what they learned with friends and family members who could not attend, especially if they are believed to have been affected by Agent Orange.
“Tell them they need to ask again,” Smith said. “They don’t know unless someone gets to them.”
In order to file any sort of claim for Agent Orange exposure, a veteran must prove they served where the substance was used.
Those who served in Vietnam on land or in a ship on the country’s inland waterways between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, were most likely to have been exposed.
Also included are those who served in or near the Korean Demilitarized Zone between April 1, 1968, and Aug. 31, 1971. The VA does not take into consideration how long a person served in those areas, and a veteran can receive benefits whether they personally handled the herbicides or simply stopped by to deliver supplies one day.
“Both veterans are considered to be equally exposed to Agent Orange,” Smith said.
While the VA could have gone through every veteran’s records to determine their orders and locations on specific days, he said the department found it “more cost effective” to simply say that those who served in certain areas within a certain range of dates would be eligible for health benefits in the event they suffered from health conditions that could be attributed to Agent Orange exposure.
In some cases, people who served offshore or outside Vietnam or Korea can be said to have been exposed to Agent Orange. “Blue Water” veterans served on sea ships that may have spent time off the shores of those countries around those times. Veterans who served in Thailand on Royal Thai Air Force bases near their perimeters or provided perimeter security for them could also be eligible for health benefits related to Agent Orange.
Others who could potentially claim they were exposed to Agent Orange are those who served where the herbicides had been tested and stored prior to going to Vietnam, such as Guam and Alaska.
Smith said that in order to receive any such benefits, proof of service in those locations must be provided. Some cases are more “difficult to prove” than others. If someone did not serve in or immediately near Vietnam during certain dates, a veteran must have very specific documentation that said they worked with Agent Orange.
“It can be done, but it’s difficult,” he said.
In addition to proof of the location(s) served, a veteran also needs a professional medical diagnosis of the presumed disease or disability.
Health care and education benefits may also be available to surviving spouses of Vietnam veterans if those veterans had any of the “presumptive” health conditions.
Another issue has arisen since the veterans were exposed to Agent Orange — their children suffering from birth defects. A child of a male veteran who has been diagnosed with spina bifida may be eligible for benefits. A list of 18 different birth defects would qualify children of female veterans.
Tuesday night’s was the seventh meeting in a statewide effort by the VVA to educate veterans on the issue of Agent Orange exposure, and Smith said many veterans have asked about how to go about getting proof of the locations they served so they could file claims.
He said that, unfortunately, records were not often well-kept during the Vietnam War, which means a veteran could have actually served somewhere else and been exposed, but cannot prove it.
During a question-and-answer session, several local veterans expressed their frustration with that fact. Some local veterans said they have conditions that could be related to Agent Orange, but are having trouble getting copies of military records that show where they actually served.
Smith said that means some people who need the extra benefits may not be able to get them because the VA is required to follow what federal law says when granting benefits.
However, he stressed that each person’s situation is different, and he urged them to keep trying to gather proof.
It is possible for a veteran to make a claim for Agent Orange-related benefits on his or her own, but his recommendation was to seek the help of the local veterans affairs office.
Veterans can set up appointments with county service officers by calling the Bradley County/Cleveland Veterans Affairs Service Office at 423-728-7100.