During the Vietnam war, one of the strategies employed by the United States military was to spray a mixture of defoliants and herbicides into heavily vegetated combat areas to destroy the plants, trees, and crops that provided cover, protection, and food sources for enemy combatants. The most common form of this mixture was known as “Agent Orange,” which contained a dioxin byproduct later found to have had disastrous effects on the health of many members of the United States military personnel exposed to it.
Veterans suffering from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange may be eligible for veterans disability benefits, health care benefits, and a free health exam (the Agent Orange Registry Health Exam). This article will focus on eligibility for veterans disability benefits.
In order for a veteran to qualify for disability benefits based on exposure to Agent Orange, he or she should have
Alternatively, veterans who served in a very select group of circumstances or locations may be eligible for benefits based on exposure to Agent Orange. These include some veterans who served on open air ships along the Vietnam Coast and on Vietnam’s inland waterways (known as Blue Water Veterans), some veterans who served along the borders of specific military bases in Thailand from February 1961 to May 1975, veterans who served in specific locations where Agent Orange was stored or tested, and some veterans who served as pilots or crew members on C-123 cargo planes after the Vietnam war. However, veterans in these circumstances may have to meet very specific criteria (unique to each circumstance listed above) and may have a higher burden of proving exposure to Agent Orange and a connection to his or her disability in order to qualify for benefits.
The Department of Veterans Affairs assumes that certain diseases and disabilities are related to a veteran’s military service in Vietnam. Called “presumptive diseases,” these diseases are automatically assumed to have a service connection, and include: non-Hodgkins lymphoma, diabetes mellitus, certain forms of respiratory cancers, multiple myleoma, chloracne, Hodgkin’s disease, soft-tissue sarcoma, and porphyria cutanea tarda. And to cause a qualifying disability, the disease must cause the veteran to be disabled to a degree of 10% or more.
This list of presumptive diseases can change from time to time. In 1991, Congress enacted the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which authorized the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to obtain independent scientific review by the National Academy of Sciences of data and evidence in order to determine if there are any additional diseases caused by exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides used in the Vietnam Conflict. Due to this Act, additional diseases may be added to the list of presumptive diseases warranting automatic coverage of disability benefits for certain Vietnam veterans.
The Agent Orange Act also provides that if a disease is no longer believed to be related to exposure to Agent Orange, it may be removed from the above list of presumptive diseases. However, in such cases, any veterans receiving disability benefits due to that disease will continue to receive benefits, even after the disease is removed from the list.
If a veteran who served in Vietnam or Korea has a disability or disease he or she believes to be a result of exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides, but that disease is not on the list of presumptive diseases, the veteran must show an actual connection between the disease and exposure to Agent Orange. This means that he or she must show exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during his or her military service, and that the disability or disease he or she suffers from is a result of that exposure.
Alternatively, veterans may be able to get benefits from Social Security. To learn more, see Social Security for Disabled Veterans.
Studies have shown that veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides have a higher incidence of having children with birth defects. Therefore, in certain cases, disability benefits may also be given to affected children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange. In order to qualify for benefits, the mental or physical birth defect of the child must be permanent and must not have any other cause (such as a genetic or family disorder or an accident during birth.) Benefits may include health care, disability compensation (based on the degree of disability suffered by the child), and vocational rehabilitation.
Children of veterans who have spina bifida may be eligible for benefits if either parent served in Vietnam between January 9, 1962 through May 7, 1975 or in the Korean DMZ between September 1, 1967 to August 31, 1971, and they were conceived after the veteran’s service in either area.
The Department of Veterans Affairs also assumes that if a child of a female servicemember who served in Vietnam between February 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975 is born with one or more of a variety of different birth defects including (but not limited to) defects such as cleft palate, hip dysplasia, congenital heart defect, and pyloric stenosis, to name a few, the defect is presumed to be a result of the female veteran’s service. A qualifying child may receive disability benefits, health care, or vocational training.
Vietnam veterans suffering from hairy cell or other chronic b-cell leukemias, Parkinson’s disease, or ischemic heart disease due to exposure to Agent Orange may use the VA’s Fast Track Claims Processing System, which would enable them to apply for disability benefits in a more expedient manner and have access to online updates.
For more information, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) publishes a very helpful guide on disability related to agent orange exposure.