Agent Orange impacted more than just Vietnam veterans

Alaska Older Veterans Report

Most Vietnam Veterans are aware VA benefits exists for a wide range of adult onset illnesses that qualify for presumptive causation from the effects of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. After many decades of testimony and case law, Congress finally directed the VA in 1991 by passing the Agent Orange Act to re-evaluate their stance on the effects of Agent Orange. Section 1116 of title 38 USC and ss 38 3.307 and ss 3.309 states if you served in Vietnam anytime from Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, you were presumed to be exposed to these toxic agents and are due compensation.

Many veterans now are receiving pension benefits and health care associated with their exposure to agent orange, agent white and agent blue. The present law covers any service member exposed to any herbicide during their tour in Vietnam but not in Thailand, where many aircrews were stationed during Operation RANCH HAND. This was a USAF mission which flew UC-123s over the Ho Chi Minh trail as well as other areas of operation where native vegetation worked to the advantage of the North Vietnam Army and the Viet Cong. An almost unquantifiable amount of this toxic chemical was deployed during the 13 years the United States military was in-country. Agent Orange, White and Blue worked well turning the areas of Laos and Vietnam where the enemy operated freely to a deadly brown. This included crops and fields where food and livestock were grown. This strategic action was to deny the enemy food sources, which effected their supply lines.

The Agent Orange Act finally acknowledged the adverse effect of the use of defoliants on our troops. What was not fully addressed was the use in Thailand, who was not technically at war. The U.S. had many airbases in Thailand, such as Korat, Nakhon Phanom (NKP), Ubon, Udorn and U-Tapao, and many U.S. personnel from all branches of service were stationed there. However, the 1991 Act covered only USAF and U.S. Army personnel with MOSs like MPs that encountered contaminated areas during security patrols. The use of the chemicals to eliminate vegetation around the perimeter of the bases was deemed by the VA as non-tactical therefore not covered. If a servicemember could prove they conducted perimeter duty in the affected areas, then they would be covered. This VA opinion was disputed by facts since the Thai bases were under attacks from elite Sapper NVA groups during the entire war (sappers normally referred to combat engineers but in the case of the North Vietnam Army, think Army Rangers or U.S. Navy SEALs).

One would think the VA would have had its fill of bad publicity but their refusal of benefits to all veterans who served in Southeast Asia is a testament to bureaucratic stubbornness. Agents Orange, Blue, and White were widely used in both Vietnam and Thailand for tactical reasons and should be covered. Veterans died waiting on some type of compensation prior to the 1991 Agent Orange Act and service members that are now suffering from the same effects shouldn’t have to wait. Aircrews routinely repaired leaking fittings and tanks in UC-123s on RANCH HAND missions, ground crews loaded, stacked and relocated untold numbers of drums of this deadly chemical. Airborne exposure to the toxicant was not even considered.

Must we wait for a change in VA bureaucracy before this issue is properly addressed or should Congress act now before more die? We need to be proactive as veterans because being proud and silently stoic will not bring about change. The U.S. Congress has a great deal on its agenda today in terms of defense spending. The past few years have taken a toll on military readiness, and we need to rebuild our armed forces. But, let’s not forget those who answered the call to duty many years ago who need our support now. Call your Congressional delegation and ask them to introduce legislation to right this oversight.

Mike Dryden is a retired U.S. Army Major and current Older Persons Action Group board member.

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