Forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the US government has amended regulations to provide disability benefits to more than 2,000 Air Force veterans and reservists who were exposed to Agent Orange while in contact with contaminated aircraft.
The new disability benefits are expected to cost $47.5 million over 10 years, plus additional health care coverage.
The rule change came after new research from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine (IOM) suggested that military personnel who were exposed to the C-123 cargo aircraft that dropped the chemical herbicide were subject to adverse health effects.
“Opening up eligibility for this deserving group of Air Force veterans and reservists is the right thing to do,” Secretary of Veteran Affairs (VA) Robert McDonald said in a statement. “We thank the IOM for its thorough review that provided the supporting evidence needed to ensure we can now fully compensate any former crew member who develops an Agent Orange-related disability.”
This is the first time the VA has designated an Agent Orange category for troops who weren't on the ground or on inland waterways in Vietnam. Agent Orange cases already make up 1 in 6 of the disability claims paid out by the VA, The Associated Press reported.
Starting in 1962, C-123 airplanes dropped approximately 19 million gallons of Agent Orange on Southeast Asia as part of Operation Ranch Hand, which was a large-scale effort to eliminate forest cover and food sources for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers.
Since then, the chemical has been linked to major health problems including skin diseases and cancers. Agent Orange’s presence in the soil and food supply of the region has also led to increased numbers of children born with health problems.
The new regulation is a long time coming for people like retired Air Force Reserve Tech. Sgt. Ed Kienle, who says he developed health problems after working on a C-123 plane.
“It’s great news,” he told The Associated Press. "I'm going to be calling up all the guys this evening to celebrate."
The rule change has also shined a light on the 200,000 “blue water” veterans who say they were exposed to Agent Orange from their drinking water while working on Navy vessels off the Vietnam coast.
Since 2002, the VA has denied claims to those individuals because of what it says is a lack of scientific evidence connecting the veterans' health problems and chemical exposure.
“This group of veterans never had boots on the ground in Vietnam, yet, just the same, they are sick due to exposure to Agent Orange. It seems Congress and the Veterans Administration consider these veterans unworthy," wrote John Bury, a Vietnam veteran, in a letter to The Times of Trenton (N.J.).
In an attempt to address the issue through legislative means, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York and Rep. Chris Gibson (R) of New York introduced bills earlier this year to provide relief to blue water veterans.
Senator Gillibrand issued a statement in light of the rule change for those who served in the Air Force.
“I am pleased the VA has finally ended the wait and will now provide disability benefits for the Air Force veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange,” she said. “However, there are still hundreds of thousands of blue water Navy veterans who are being denied benefits they need and deserve because of a technicality in the law.”