Agent Orange, Clearing the Confusion
The controversies surrounding Agent Orange (A/O), a herbicide commonly associated with duty in Vietnam, remain very contentious and confusing. Often in veteran’s circles one will hear that somebody “died of A/O.” In one instance, after a memorial service I listened to several vets and their wives express how Agent Orange is still killing people. The veteran who had recently passed away was diagnosed with liver cancer. While I’m thinking- “I know of lots of people who have died from liver cancer who did not have a known history of exposure to this carcinogen. Was it really A/O?”
So what is Agent Orange and what is not? How does this relate to claims with the Department of Veteran Affairs?
Agent Orange was a plant killer used to defoliate the vegetation around military bases so to deny any concealment in trees and such. It was used in about 40% of the area of Vietnam, the Korean DMZ, and many other places. It was used so commonly that accurate records were not kept. A chemical used in A/O, called dioxin, has been associated with several diseases long after it was stopped being used.
In order for the VA to grant service-connection of a medical issue and pay compensation there must be an established link between that medical condition and the vet’s military service. However in the case of A/O exposures, any “officially recognized” disease that a veteran may have along with the proof that he or she served in a geographical area where the herbicide was used - is “presumed” to have been exposed and service connection is automatically granted. In other words, it was used, you were there, and now you have one of the officially recognized illnesses – the VA pays. The list of areas sprayed with A/O is constantly updated and expanded.
A major controversy is the Blue Water Navy Vets and the Brown Water Navy Vets. The browns were sailors who had duty that required them to be on the inland waterways of South Vietnam and were expected to have gone ashore (“boots on the ground”) sometime during their tour of duty. The blue water sailors were those who were off shore in the South China Sea and are not considered to have been exposed. There is little or no scientific evidence showing there was actual exposure or a higher incidence of any disease as compared to those who were never near Vietnam.
The list of “officially” recognized diseases is available on the VA websites. The most common diseases that are granted service-connection are prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and various lymphomas. The “official” list of diseases as recognized by the VA were the result of medical research showing exposed veterans are more susceptible to these diseases than non-exposed people are. Thus many other illnesses are not recognized by the VA for service connection. Be alert, the list is always being added to.
Medical research has not supported the many claims people have made subsequent to their belief that A/O is linked to whatever is making them sick. But this does not slam the door to receiving service-connection and compensation for a disease believed to be linked to the herbicide. Any disease that a vet believes is linked to A/O can be service connected if there is compelling evidence provided by an expert opinion. As an example- a vet has a rare cancer and the doctor tells him that this cancer is only seen after exposure to dioxin. Then the veteran only has to get that opinion in a letter along with proof that he or she was truly exposed. All the ways of getting good evidence will be the subject of a future article.
Years ago, claims for diabetes were denied by the VA as it was not on the list of recognized diseases. Now diabetes is recognized and the earlier decisions reversed. A new claim can be made to reopen the denial with new and material evidence. The new evidence is the updated list and the material/evidence is so compelling that a changed decision is needed. This is useful for other diseases previously denied now added to the “official list.”
This procedure carries over to the VA’s Dependants Indemnity Compensation (DIC) program for the spouses of deceased veterans. A widow or widower can make a claim with the VA if they know their spouse was (“boots on the ground”) in Vietnam and died from a recognized disease linked to A/O, even if it had been previously denied, but now listed.
In the case of veterans who passed away from a recognized disease but were in places like Thailand or Korea, there must be evidence providing the unit identification, the time, and local of the suspected exposure. The VA will confirm the information and provide benefits for spouses, minor children, and other qualified survivors. These benefits include money, education, and in some cases support for health care.
The Agent Orange Registry is a database of veterans who have claimed exposure to A/O. It documents the time and place of exposure, and provides a medical exam. The registry is primarily to screen for potentially sick veterans and for statistical research. It does not provide service-connection of a medical issue, evidence for a claim, nor any benefits. Veterans often think it has more value than it actually does. On the other side of the coin, a veteran is better served to be on that registry.
The Vietnam Veterans of America, a federally chartered veteran service organization (VSO) has published an excellent pamphlet on this subject, “Service-Connected Disability Compensation for Exposure to Agent Orange for Veterans and Their Families.” They strongly recommend getting help with any A/O related claim either from them or other VSOs. There are many good websites on the Internet and you can always call the VA at 1-800-827-1000 for the latest list of A/O recognized diseases.