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Many Veterans Suffering from Diseases Linked to Agent Orange Still Can't Get Disability Compensation

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Forty years after the last U.S. troops left Vietnam, military veterans continue to tussle with the Department of Veterans Affairs over whether they should be compensated for their exposure to the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange.

Under Secretary Eric Shinseki, himself a Vietnam veteran, the agency has taken enormous strides to acknowledge that exposure to the toxic defoliant caused a variety of health problems, from birth defects to Type II diabetes to lung cancer. Shinseki has been applauded for adding more diseases, including Parkinson's and heart disease, to the list of maladies presumed to have been caused by Agent Orange. The expansion could make as many as 200,000 Vietnam War veterans eligible for compensation.

Yet the reach of the herbicide, which contains toxic dioxin, extends beyond the classes of U.S. military veterans now presumed by the VA to be suffering ill health. Vietnamese people, too, have been afflicted with a range of diseases associated with Agent Orange. And even among U.S. veterans, gaps in recognition and compensation remain.

Among those who have fought with limited success for disability compensation are the people who flew in aircraft carrying Agent Orange, so-called "blue water sailors" who didn't set foot in Vietnam but who say they ingested the chemical, and people who served during the war in South Korea, where the defoliant was also used.

McMinnville's Wes Carter, a retired Air Force Reservist who served aboard a C-123 aircraft that sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War, has made himself into an expert on the Air Force's handling of C-123s, including the one he flew.

While the war had ended by the time Carter flew aboard the aircraft, he remembers the terrible chemical stink that forced the crew to fly the unpressurized craft with windows and sometimes doors open. At his website,, he has compiled extensive documentation that shows his aircraft and others were contaminated with toxins. Yet the Air Force destroyed the aircraft and the Department of Veterans Affairs has not acknowledged a connection between the aircraft and Agent Orange-related diseases.

Carter has suffered heart attacks and been afflicted with prostate cancer. He and other members of his C-123 crew "were more likely as not to have been exposed to excessive levels of dioxins," Dr. Fred Berman, director of Oregon Health and Science University's CROET Toxicology Information Center, wrote in a May 2011 letter to the Secretary of the Air Force and the C-123 veterans. Berman said the aircraft flown by Carter and the others were considered to be "heavily contaminated" with dioxins.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has written to the VA about the C-123 veterans, urging Shinseki and to the VA's Inspector General to reconsider the VA's stance on claims by C-123 crew members.

Merkley noted that, despite evidence of extensive contamination of the aircraft, VA representatives "have stated that it is not possible that C-123 air crews were exposed to dioxin because the residues had dried" -- a position Merkley said other experts had called "seriously flawed." He asked that the VA evaluate each disability compensation claim on its own merits.

"Regardless of how a veteran gets exposed to Agent Orange, they still need to be treated fairly by the VA," Merkley said this week through a spokesperson. "A veteran who later flew planes that had been used to spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War is still sick even if his Agent Orange exposure was non-traditional."

The VA didn't respond to requests for comment about Merkley's letter or Carter's case.
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