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Agent Orange and Veterans: A 40-Year Wait

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki writes about long overdue changes that will allow as many as 150,000 Veterans to submit Agent Orange claims in the next 12 to 18 months.

With the unwavering support of President Obama, VA is transforming to meet its 21st Century responsibilities.  Advocacy, on behalf of every generation of Veterans, is central to this transformation.
Agent Orange was a blend of herbicides used by the U.S. military, during the Vietnam conflict, to deny concealment to enemy forces.  More than 19 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed to remove foliage and undergrowth.  The most common, Agent Orange, was sprayed in all four military zones of South Vietnam.

Heavily sprayed areas included the inland forests near the Demilitarized Zone; inland forests at the junction of the borders of Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam; inland forests north and northwest of Saigon; mangrove forests on the southernmost peninsula of Vietnam; and mangrove forests along major shipping channels southeast of Saigon.
The issue of Agent Orange’s toxic effects on Veterans, who served in Vietnam, has simmered for decades.  Its insidious impact on those exposed to it has become increasingly apparent.  That growing awareness has resulted in the Congress’, this Department’s, and the Institute of Medicine’s previous validations of some 12 diseases, which, to date, have been granted presumption of service connection for those exposed to Agent Orange.
Last October, based on the requirements of the Agent Orange Act of 1991 and the Institute of Medicine’s report, “Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 2008,” I determined that the evidence provided was sufficient to support presumptions of service connection for three additional diseases: Parkinson’s Disease, Hairy Cell and other Chronic B-Cell Leukemia, and Ischemic Heart Disease.  After a public rulemaking process, we are now issuing a final regulation creating these new presumptions.
This action means that Veterans who were exposed to herbicides in service and who suffer from one of the “presumed” illnesses do not have to prove an association between their medical problems and their military service.  This action helps Veterans to overcome the evidentiary requirements that might otherwise make it difficult for them to establish such an association in order to qualify for healthcare and other benefits needed as a result of their diseases.  The “Presumption” simplifies and accelerates the application process and ensures that Veterans will receive the benefits they deserve.
As many as 150,000 Veterans may submit Agent Orange claims in the next 12 to 18 months. Additionally, VA will review approximately 90,000 previously denied claims from Vietnam Veterans for service connection for these three new diseases. All those who are awarded service-connection, and who are not currently enrolled in the VA health care system, will become eligible for enrollment.
Veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam, including its inland waterways, between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975, are presumed to have been exposed to herbicides.  If you know a Veteran who may have been exposed to herbicides in service and who suffers from one of the diseases that may be presumptively service connected, the Veteran or the Veteran's family can visit our website to find out how to file a claim for presumptive conditions related to herbicide exposure, as well as what information is needed by VA to determine disability compensation or survivors’ benefits.  Additionally, VA’s Office of Public Health can answer questions about Agent Orange and VA’s services for Veterans exposed to it.
This rule is long overdue.  It delivers justice to those who have suffered from Agent Orange’s toxic effects for 40 years.  I have been invited to testify before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on 23 September to explain these decisions, and I am happy to do that.  It was the right decision, and the President and I are proud to finally provide this group of Veterans the care and benefits they have long deserved.
VA is committed to addressing the health care needs of Veterans from all eras.  Forty years from today, a future Secretary of VA should not be adjudicating presumptive disabilities associated with our current conflicts.  Change is difficult for any good organization, but we are transforming this Department to advocate for Veterans.  We will not let our Veterans languish without hope for service-connected disabilities resulting from their service.

Eric K. Shinseki is Secretary  of Veterans Affairs