Over a ten-year period, the U.S. military dropped around 20 million gallons of toxic herbicide across 4.5 million acres of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The mission was called Operation Ranch Hand, and used toxic herbicides to defoliate the heavy forest. The most well-known toxin used is Agent Orange, the most common 55-gallon drum of dioxin found regularly on military bases during the Vietnam War.
In 1991, Vietnam War veterans saw the passage of the Agent Orange Act, which acknowledged that the chemical was strongly linked to various cancers and the development of other diseases for veterans.
The bill authorized VA health benefits to those exposed to the toxins, but at the time, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ definition of exposure only covered those who spent time on the ground in Vietnam, which excluded Blue Water Navy veterans who served off the coast, though also handled Agent Orange.
As of January, 2019, a Federal Court ruled blue water Navy veterans are now eligible for the same VA benefits.
Agent Orange Benefits Eligibility
Recent government funding has worked to extend VA health care and compensation to tens of thousands of Air Force, Navy and Marine veterans with Agent Orange-associated conditions. The Diseases and Conditions covered by the VA include the following:
- AL Amyloidosis—A rare disease caused when an abnormal protein, amyloid, enters tissues or organs
- Chronic B-cell Leukemias—type of cancer which affects white blood cells
- Chloracne (or similar acneform disease)—skin condition that occurs soon after exposure to chemicals. It must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of exposure to herbicides.
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 2—a disease characterized by high blood sugar levels resulting from the body’s inability to respond properly to the hormone insulin
- Hodgkin’s Disease—malignant lymphoma (cancer) characterized by progressive enlargement of the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen, and by progressive anemia
- Ischemic Heart Disease—a disease characterized by a reduced supply of blood to the heart, that leads to chest pain
- Multiple Myeloma—a cancer of plasma cells, a type of white blood cell in bone marrow
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma—a group of cancers that affect the lymph glands and other lymphatic tissue
- Parkinson’s Disease—a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects muscle movement
- Early-Onset Peripheral Neuropathy—a nervous system condition that causes numbness, tingling, and motor weakness. It must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of herbicide exposure.
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda—a disorder characterized by liver dysfunction and by thinning and blistering of the skin in sun-exposed areas. Must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of exposure to herbicides.
- Prostate Cancer—one of the most common cancers among men
- Respiratory Cancers (including lung cancer)—cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea, and bronchus
- Soft Tissue Sarcomas (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or mesothelioma)—cancers in body tissues such as muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels, and connective tissues
Joe Lyon is an experienced Ohio toxic tort lawyer and VA Attorney reviewing Agent Orange Exposure Lawsuits and personal injury cases for injured veteran plaintiffs nationwide.
Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Exposure
For major expense reasons, the VA opposes extending benefits to veterans who served on ships during the Vietnam War and have exposure-related ailments linked to Agent Orange.
Court papers show that the U.S. was aware that Agent Orange was toxic to those exposed to the chemical. Dioxins, byproducts of the herbicide manufacturing process, accumulates in fatty tissues, and can persist for hundreds or thousands of years, contaminating areas and can lead to cancer and various disabilities.
After the Vietnam War, blue water Navy veterans began noticing higher cancer rates and other diseases linked to Agent Orange. In 1979, a class-action lawsuit representing veterans was filed against the chemical companies and a $240 million settlement was reached.
Agent Orange exposure presents lifetime risks and in June 2017, 1,500 to 2,100 troops who served as flight and ground crews for aircraft that distributed the Agent Orange were added to the VA benefit roles. Reports showed Navy veterans could have been exposed to the toxins in drinking water and their laundry.
About 650,000 Vietnam veterans have made Agent Orange benefit claims, and now an additional 50-70,000 veterans are eligible for Agent Orange benefits.
Blue Water veterans argue the VA has been “cherry-picking” information from scientific reports to conclude there is no scientific basis to support extending Agent Orange-related benefits. Other experts on the subject think exposure was highly likely for all Vietnam veterans.
It is now not possible to quantify exposures for Blue Water and Brown Water Navy sailors or for ground troops, but contaminated water at the time was a major health concern.
Navy ships were provided potable water from barges operating from shore, where millions of tons of defoliant was dropped. Some American soldiers even used the empty 55-gallon drums for makeshift showers at camps.
Legal Action: Agent Orange Exposure Lawsuits
Many veterans who served in Vietnam and the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the 1960s and 1970s suffer from cancer and other adverse health issues. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) presumes that certain diseases were caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides.
The VA makes the same presumption for veterans who were exposed to dioxin outside of Vietnam. The VA presumes Agent Orange exposure among veterans who:
- Served in Vietnam between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, including brief visits ashore or service aboard ships that operated on Vietnam’s inland waterways.
- Served in or near the Korean DMZ between April 1, 1968, and August 31, 1971.
- Served as members of the Air Force or Air Force Reserve from 1969 through 1986 and regularly and repeatedly operated, maintained or served on board C-123 aircraft, which sprayed Agent Orange over Vietnam.
Other injured Vietnam Era veterans who can demonstrate exposure to Agent Orange may obtain disability benefits, include those who:
- Served on or near U.S. military bases in Thailand during the Vietnam Era.
- Served on open-sea ships off the shore of Vietnam during the Vietnam War (Blue Water Veterans).
- Served where the military tested and stored herbicides outside of Vietnam.