COLUMN: Caring for every veteran suffering from Agent Orange exposure
We are fortunate to have a large population of veterans living in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, many of whom served in the Vietnam War. During this brutal war, many of these brave Coloradans fell victim to a terror they could have never foreseen: a toxic herbicide called Agent Orange.
Throughout the course of the Vietnam War, the United States military sprayed 18-20 million gallons of herbicides. Agent Orange was the most common herbicide used, with 11-12 million gallons sprayed throughout the entirety of the war to eliminate foliage and crops that hid and fed the Viet Cong troops.
While Agent Orange served its intended purpose, there were unintended consequences that would impact the lives of millions for decades to come. A few years after the war, scientists discovered that a chemical in Agent Orange called dioxin is extremely lethal to humans. By the time of their discovery, the courageous soldiers who served during the Vietnam War were potentially exposed to this dangerous chemical.
Upon their return home, many of the Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange began to develop serious health problems, like cancer, as well as psychological and neurological disorders. But the harmful effects did not just stop with that generation, because dioxin does not only affect the individual exposed. Dioxin can also alter DNA, which is why many children of Vietnam veterans are born with severe deformities or birth defects like spina bifida.
In response to the vast number of veterans and their families suffering from Agent Orange exposure, President George H. W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law in 1991, which mandated that diseases associated with Agent Orange be treated as the result of wartime service. However, in my time serving Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, I have heard too many cases of Coloradan Vietnam-era veterans who are suffering from Agent Orange exposure but have still not received the care that is owed to them.
It is relatively unknown that many veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War actually served in Thailand. Even though these individuals show symptoms of exposure, they still do not immediately qualify for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Agent Orange treatment benefits, all because they did not serve in recognized locations or careers during their service in Thailand.
Current protocols dictate that in order to receive these benefits, veterans must first go through an appeals process that takes five to seven years on average. During that drawn-out period, their ailments often become drastically worse due to lack of treatment.
Since 2011, my office has worked on one hundred cases for Vietnam veterans who were stationed in Thailand during the war. Most of their cases started in the early 2000’s and remained open for years. This is inexcusable, which is why I am supporting an important piece of legislation that would give veterans who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War the opportunity to prove their exposure to herbicide agents like Agent Orange and not languish in a lengthy bureaucratic process while their conditions worsen.
Nothing is more disheartening than hearing the stories of the Vietnam veterans who have been denied or made to wait years for the Agent Orange exposure treatment they need. I will continue to work to ensure Colorado’s Vietnam veterans have access to the care they have earned. If you or someone you know is having an issue receiving their benefits, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or a member of my staff. We can be reached in Grand Junction at (970) 241-2499.