Veterans Corner: The Legacy of Agent Orange

by Jim Pedersen, VSO & Director of Moore County Veterans Service Office

Nearly every day we hear from Vietnam-era veterans who haven’t applied for VA disability benefits even though they have been diagnosed with a serious health condition that can be linked to Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide and defoliant used in Vietnam. Some say they haven’t applied because they aren’t sure their health condition qualifies them to receive benefits. Others don’t realize their illness is connected to their military service because it developed many years after they were separated from service.

The VA approves disability claims for many serious health conditions like cancer, heart disease, and certain skin conditions because they are presumed to have been caused by Agent Orange exposure. In fact, the VA recognizes a specific list of ailments and illnesses as related to Agent Orange including Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, respiratory cancer, chronic B-cell leukemia, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease and Parkinson’s disease. Several other less well known conditions are also considered to be related to exposure. These include soft tissue sarcoma (or cancers that affect muscles, fat, blood, lymph and connective tissues), AL Amyloidosis, chloracne, early onset peripheral neuropathy and porphyria cutanea tarda, a rare liver disease. 

When deciding the claim, the VA doesn’t consider the amount of time that has passed between a veteran’s military discharge and the onset of illness. Veterans who develop one of the acknowledged Agent Orange-related health conditions need to provide proof that they were in an area where either the herbicide was used or that was contaminated. DD214 discharge papers and other military records that include the dates and locations of service can be used to establish the necessary service connection to prove the claim.

For many years, the VA only awarded Agent Orange benefits to people who had boots on the ground in Vietnam or to those who were assigned to small river patrol and swift boats in the country’s inland waterways. That changed earlier this year when the VA approved compensation for qualifying “Blue Water” veterans, those were stationed aboard ships in the waters surrounding Vietnam. While these veterans did not set foot on Vietnamese soil, they who were still exposed to the herbicide and are now eligible for compensation if they develop an Agent Orange-related disease. Blue Water Veterans are encouraged to file their claim now to ensure the earliest possible effective date.

There are several other groups of people who may qualify for disability due to Agent Orange even though they were not in Vietnam. Included in this list are:

  • People in or near the Demilitarized Zone in Korea between April 1, 1968 and Aug. 31, 1971;
  • Air Force Veterans stationed near the air base perimeter at certain Royal Thai Air Force bases between Feb. 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975. This includes veterans who performed perimeter security, Army veterans who were members of the military police or who served near the base perimeter at some small Army installations in Thailand, or those who served at locations in Thailand or Korea where Agent Orange was stored or tested;
  • Army veterans who had contact with Agent Orange while testing, spraying, or transporting herbicides for military purposes;
  • Veterans who had regular and repeated contact with C-123 aircraft that was contaminated with Agent Orange. This includes Reservists who served as flight, ground or medical crew at Lockbourne/Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio between 1969 and 1986, at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts between 1972 and 1982 and at Pittsburgh International Airport between 1972 and 1982.

Veterans who believe they were exposed to Agent Orange but who have not become sick may sign up for the Agent Orange Registry Health Exam. This free exam can help you verify if you were exposed to Agent Orange and alert you to Agent Orange-related illnesses. You can learn more about the registry and how to access a free health exam by visiting www.va.gov.

The Moore County Veterans Service Office, located at 707 Pinehurst Ave., Carthage, is staffed by three experienced, trained and nationally-accredited Veterans Service Officers (VSO). Our VSOs will help you gather the required medical and service records to prove your disability claim, file the claim on your behalf and provide assistance as needed throughout the process. In accordance with Federal law, all services are free of charge to Moore County Veterans and their families. For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact the office at 910-947-3257.

VSO Jim Pedersen, right, is the director of the Moore County Veterans Service Office. Experienced nationally-certified VSOs Kelly Greene, and Robert “Bob” Hall, a Vietnam-era veteran who retired from the Army after 30 years of service, assist Moore County veterans with their disability claims.