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Vietnam Vets’ Ongoing Battle for Agent Orange Compensation

By April 2, 2019December 30th, 2021VA Disability

Currently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs list of Agent Orange-related diseases includes seven cancers and seven other illnesses for a total of 14 diseases. A Vietnam-era veteran who came into contact with Agent Orange may receive disability compensation or benefits if the VA believes their illness is due to Agent Orange exposure.

If a disease is included on the VA’s list, veterans applying for VA disability benefits do not need to prove their illness is directly connected to military service. Veterans only need to show they served in areas where Agent Orange was used and now suffer from one of the listed conditions.

The Vietnam Veterans of America has been working to expand the VA’s list of service-related illnesses for years. The VA bases their decision on whether to recognize a disease as Agent Orange-related on National Academy of Medicine (NAM) reports. The NAM releases these reports, a review of medical and scientific literature, every two years. The VA maintains evidence does not exist for dozens of diseases that veterans want added to the list of service-related illnesses. These conditions include bladder cancer, glioblastoma, hypothyroidism, and hypertension.

For decades, there has been debate over whether definitive links exist between a particular illness and Agent Orange exposure. Some veterans think the VA’s refusal to recognize diseases as service-related is due to the cost of adding to the list. In fact, past efforts to add to the VA’s list stalled in the Office of Management and Budget.

Adding to the List of Related Diseases

In 2017, the VA announced that further exploration was necessary before compensating Vietnam veterans for illnesses like bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, Parkinson-like tremors, and hypertension. Veterans were hoping these conditions would be added to the VA’s list after the National Academy of Medicine’s update to their review of medical and scientific literature on Agent Orange, published in 2014.

The updated report found “limited or suggestive” evidence of a link between Agent Orange exposure and bladder cancer. The same was found for hypothyroidism. In the past, the NAM rated these connections as “inadequate or insufficient.” The literature review also states there is “no rational basis” to exclude Parkinson’s-like symptoms from the VA’s list when it includes Parkinson’s disease.

VA Benefits for High Blood Pressure

The NAM’s 2018 update includes “suggestive evidence” linking hypertension and related conditions to Agent Orange used in South East Asia. If the VA recognizes high blood pressure as a service-related condition, tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans could enjoy new or expanded disability benefits.

Agent Orange and Glioblastoma

Glioblastoma, a kind of brain cancer, is just one of the diseases the VA doesn’t consider related to herbicide exposure. Some veterans proved the connection between Agent Orange exposure and their glioblastoma in the past to receive disability benefits.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer wants to make it easier for Vietnam veterans suffering from glioblastoma to receive compensation. Senator Schumer requested “the VA make publicly available all claims submitted by veterans… for service-connected disability compensation due to a veteran’s diagnosis of glioblastoma.”

He also asked the VA to fill in gaps in its data for Vietnam-era veterans diagnosed with glioblastoma. The VA’s current data does not currently include diagnoses by private physicians. Lastly, Senator Schumer encouraged “the VA to commission research to determine whether a causal relationship exists between glioblastoma and… Agent Orange.”

Offshore Exposure to Agent Orange

In 1991, George H.W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law. The Act allowed Vietnam veterans to receive compensation for diseases likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange. The Agent Orange Act included sailors who served in the deep “blue water” miles off the Vietnam shore.

In 1997, veterans who served in the Navy and never touched land in South East Asia were denied disability benefits for the 14 illnesses on the VA’s list. Despite presenting with diseases similar to their on-land counterparts, blue water sailors were only eligible for compensation on a case-by-case basis. For disability benefits, the VA requires veterans to show proof of boots on the ground or operating along an inland waterway.

Congress voted to restore the benefits of the Agent Orange Act to all servicemen, including Navy veterans, in 2018. The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association estimates this change could make 90,000 Vietnam-era sailors eligible for disability benefits.

Blue Water Victory

In early 2019, the courts made a similar decision. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled 9-2 in favor of Alfred Procopio Jr., who served on the USS Intrepid during the Vietnam War. He now suffers from prostate cancer and diabetes. However, his veterans disability benefits were denied because he served in the water and not on land.

This ruling allows Vietnam veterans who served offshore and suffer from illnesses linked to Agent Orange to benefit from compensation. During the legal battle, the VA maintained that not enough scientific evidence exists to link sailors’ diseases to herbicide exposure. The organization also argued that allowing blue water veterans to obtain benefits would be too costly. After Procopio’s win, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie appeared before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He will not ask the Department of Justice to continue the fight against blue water veterans.

As Mike Little, executive director of the Sea Service Family Foundation expressed, the “VA owes all these vets an apology for the years they spent denying them benefits. Not appealing this court decision is the first step. I hope this decision brings peace of mind to those widows left behind.”