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A U.S. Army Huey helicopter sprays Agent Orange over agricultural land during the Vietnam War.

Under the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 those who served aboard U.S. Navy or Coast Guard vessels on the offshore “blue waters” of the Republic of Vietnam between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975 and their dependents may be entitled to benefits as a result of “herbicide exposure.”

At the time, it was believed that the desalination process used to make sea water drinkable also destroyed the remnants of various herbicides used by the U.S. Military to clear vegetation used as cover by the enemy. The most widely known of theses herbicides was Agent Orange.

Agent Orange is a herbicide and defoliant chemical, one of the “tactical use” Rainbow Herbicides. It is widely known for its use by the U.S. military as part of its chemical warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. In mid-1961, President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam asked the United States to conduct aerial herbicide spraying in his country. In August of that year, the Republic of Vietnam Air Force conducted herbicide operations with American help. But Diem’s request launched a policy debate in the White House and the State and Defense Departments. However, U.S. officials considered using it, pointing out that the British had already used herbicides and defoliants during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. In November 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized the start of Operation Ranch Hand, the codename for the U.S. Air Force’s herbicide program in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 U.S. gallons of various chemicals – the “rainbow herbicides” and defoliants – in Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia as part of the aerial defoliation program reaching its peak from 1967 to 1969.

Up to four million people in Vietnam were exposed to the defoliant. The government of Vietnam says as many as 3 million people have suffered illnesses because of Agent Orange. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems as a result of contamination from the chemicals. The U.S. government has documented higher cases of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and various kinds of cancer in exposed veterans. Agent Orange also caused enormous environmental damage in Vietnam. Over 11,969 square miles of forest were defoliated. Defoliants eroded tree cover and seedling forest stock, making reforestation difficult in numerous areas. Animal species diversity sharply reduced in contrast with unsprayed areas. Overall, more than 20% of South Vietnam’s forests were sprayed at least once over a nine-year period.

The use of Agent Orange in Vietnam resulted in massive legal consequences. The United Nations ratified United Nations General Assembly Resolution 31/72 and the Environmental Modification Convention. Lawsuits filed on behalf of both US and Vietnamese veterans sought compensation for damages. Over forty years later, we are still discovering the aftereffects of the widespread use of these chemicals.

While in Vietnam, the veterans were told not to worry, and were persuaded the chemical was harmless. After returning home, veterans began to suspect their ill health or the instances of their wives having miscarriages or children born with birth defects might be related to Agent Orange and the other toxic herbicides to which they had been exposed in Vietnam. Veterans began to file claims in 1977 to the Department of Veterans Affairs for disability payments for health care for conditions they believed were associated with exposure to Agent Orange, or more specifically, dioxin, but their claims were denied unless they could prove the condition began when they were in the service or within one year of their discharge.

In 1991, Congress enacted the Agent Orange Act, giving the Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to declare certain conditions “presumptive” to exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin, making these veterans who served in Vietnam eligible to receive treatment and compensation for these conditions. The same law required the National Academy of Sciences to periodically review the science on dioxin and herbicides used in Vietnam to inform the Secretary of Veterans Affairs about the strength of the scientific evidence showing association between exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin and certain conditions. Through this process, the list of ‘presumptive’ conditions has grown since 1991, and currently the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has listed prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple myeloma, type II diabetes mellitus, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and spina bifida in children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange as conditions associated with exposure to the herbicide. This list now also includes B cell leukemias, such as hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease, these last three having been added on August 31, 2010. 

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, sponsored by Representative Mark Takano of California’s 41st congressional district, was introduced on January 8, 2019 and enacted after being signed by President Trump on June 25. The American Legion-supported legislation extends disability benefits covering medical conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure to those who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam, known as “Blue Water” Navy veterans. The Law will go into effect on January 1, 2020.

According to the Agent Orange Act of 1991. Presumptive diseases of exposure to the herbicide include certain cancers, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. However, this act applied only to veterans who served on land and in Vietnam’s inland waterways. The new act extends these benefits to any military personnel who served on any vessel during the Vietnam War that came within 12 nautical miles of the coastlines of Vietnam. It further expands coverage and includes the provision that every veteran exposed to herbicides like Agent Orange should receive the same presumptive benefits. A provision in the act states, “A veteran who, during active military, naval, or air service, served offshore of the Republic of Vietnam during the period beginning on January 9, 1962, and ending on May 7, 1975,” will be eligible for disability compensation for presumptive conditions of herbicide exposure. This will allow veterans who fall into that category and whose claims have been denied or held in pending status to gain access to VA medical care for conditions on the presumptive list.

The new ACT will also afford spouses of certain veterans whose death was caused by a service-connected disability access to pension benefits. The bill also provides the children of veterans of covered service in Thailand who suffer from spina bifida access to health care, vocational training and rehabilitation, and monetary allowance.

Veterans and their loved ones who may now be entitled to these benefits should contact the Randolph County Veterans Service Office at (765) 584-1463 for assistance.