Groups representing Vietnam veterans are hailing a proposed federal rule change that would make it easier for Vietnam veterans to claim disability pay related to battlefield exposure to Agent Orange.
"This is important, because we're dying faster than the World War II guys because of exposure to Agent Orange," said Joe Ingino, president of Vietnam Veterans of America's Nassau County chapter, and an Agent Orange patient.
The rule change, proposed last week by Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and expected to benefit as many as 200,000 veterans, would add several diseases associated with dioxin poisoning to a list of afflictions presumed to be Vietnam service connected.
If adopted, the new rules would mean Vietnam veterans suffering from B-cell leukemias, Parkinson's disease and ischemic heart disease would no longer have to prove that their illnesses was caused by exposure.
Although the change is not set, VA officials say veterans with these three diseases should file for compensation immediately so they can get benefits from the date of application once the rule becomes final.
Agent Orange, so named because it was distributed in orange-striped barrels, was the most widely used of several plant-killing chemicals that U.S. military planes sprayed over Vietnam to destroy enemy crops or denude forests where insurgents hid.
Agent Orange contains TCDD, a long-lived polychlorinated dioxin that is considered among the most toxic man-made chemicals ever produced, according to the National Academies of Science. That particular dioxin is associated with cancers, skin disorders, immune system problems, reproductive abnormalities, birth defects and other maladies.
Similar herbicides used in the spraying campaign had even higher concentrations of TCDD, including Agent Purple and Agent Pink. In all, some 19 million gallons of defoliants were released during a nine-year spraying campaign that ended in 1971, experts have said.
Veterans advocates have long accused the federal government of foot dragging over the alarming numbers of Vietnam vets displaying diseases related to dioxin poisoning.
Government resistance to these assertions began to change in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War. Congress quickly passed a bill to provide permanent disability benefits to veterans suffering from two forms of cancer - non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and soft-tissue sarcoma - and chloracne, a disfiguring skin malady.
That change allowed Daniel Greenspan, of Holbrook, who served in Vietnam in the late 1960s, to receive federal assistance after he discovered a lump under his armpit about 11 years ago. Greenspan died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2005. He was 62.
His widow, Marsha, said she began pushing for government action on Agent Orange after learning of possible side effects while her husband was still in Vietnam.
"It took a while for them to admit that the cancer was the Agent Orange," she said. "I think it would have helped if they had let them know right away."
How to apply for benefits?
Operation Ranch Hand: A 10-year program where Agent Orange and other dioxin-tainted herbicides were used to destroy crops and forest cover that benefitted Vietnamese insurgents. Program organized in 1961 under President John F. Kennedy, who approved specific targets for spraying until control was delegated to U.S. authorities in Vietnam in late 1962.
- 19 million gallons of herbicide was sprayed, including 11 million gallons of Agent Orange.
- Six million acres sprayed, an area the size of New Hampshire.
- Troops exposed through spraying, contaminated drinking water. Used drums were used as barbecue grills, showers.
- Ranch Hand peaked in 1967, with 1.7 million acres sprayed - 15 percent of it crop fields.
Signs of trouble:
A 1969 study showed that Agent Orange could produce birth defects and stillbirths in mice. The herbicide was virtually banned in the United States on April 15, 1970, although use of similar poisons continues. Operation Ranch Hand ends Jan. 7, 1971.
March 22, 1978 - A Chicago television station airs reports that 41 Vietnam vets linked by exposure to Agent Orange were suffering from skin rashes, numbness, diminished sex drive and psychological problems.
Source: Operation Ranch Hand: The Air Force and Herbicides in Southeast Asia, 1961-1971 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982).