Sixty years ago today, the toxic herbicide known as Agent Orange was first sprayed. Developed by Dow Chemical, Agent Orange was a chemical compound designed to defoliate areas of the Vietnamese countryside. This killing of vegetation would disallow the enemy potential cover and destroy crops that fed the people. Agent Orange was one of a group of “tactical use” chemicals known as the Rainbow Herbicides used by the U.S. military in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Chemically, Agent Orange was composed of equal parts 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) and 2-4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D); in the mix, there were found to be traces of the most toxic form of dioxin known as 2,3,7,9-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD). Even in traces, TCDD was found to cause major health problems to many who were exposed and would later to be found to affect the offspring of those exposed.
First sprayed in August 1961, it wasn’t until November 1961 that Agent Orange was authorized for use in Operation Ranch Hand, the codename for the U.S. Air Force’s herbicide program in Vietnam. On January 9, 1962, the first batch of Agent Orange was unloaded at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam. From there, records show that at least 6,542 spraying missions took place during the course of Operation Ranch Hand from 1962 to 1971. American combat troops did not begin to officially fight in Vietnam until 1965.
Although initial research suggested that the use of Agent Orange could create health problems for those exposed, the compound was employed widely anyway. While in Vietnam, U.S. troops were told not to worry and were reportedly persuaded that Agent Orange was harmless. Upon return home, Veterans of the Vietnam War began experiencing health issues in note only themselves but also in their spouses; those affected would miscarry or have children with birth defects. At that point, Vietnam Veterans started to suspect that their exposure to Agent Orange was the cause of all these problems.
It would be about six years after the U.S. ended operations in Vietnam when Veterans began filing claims for disability compensation for health conditions they believed were tied to exposure to Agent Orange. However, claims were denied unless it could be proven that these conditions began during time in service or within a year of being discharged.
This ultimately placed Veterans of the Vietnam War in the difficult position of having to prove exposure to Agent Orange after being told by the military that Agent Orange was harmless. All the while, these Veterans developed one or several medical conditions associated with exposure to the chemical compound or, most likely, to dioxin. Health conditions caused by Agent Orange include the following:
- Bladder cancer
- Chronic B-cell leukemia
- Hodgkin’s disease
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Prostate cancer
- Respiratory cancers (including lung cancer)
- Some soft tissue sarcomas
- AL amyloidosis
- Chloracne (or other forms of acneiform disease like it)
- Diabetes mellitus type 2
- Ischemic heart disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Peripheral neuropathy, early onset
- Porphyria cutanea tarda
From 1977, when Veterans began filing claims for Agent Orange exposure, to about April 1993, only 486 of 39,419 Veterans had been compensated.
In 1979, about 2.4 million Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange filed a class action lawsuit that was settled out of court to the tune of $180 million by seven large chemical companies that made the herbicide. The settlement occurred five years after the lawsuit was filed. In the years that followed, the settlement was challenged and some 300 Veterans filed additional lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the settlement in 1988. At that point, the settlement had gained interest and had risen to $240 million.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law. The act mandated that the some diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure and other herbicides be treated as the result of wartime service. This helped codify the VA’s response to Veterans with health conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange.
Approximately 20 million gallons of Agent Orange was used in Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, it’s been reported that roughly 300,000 troops have died from exposure and an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese people have also died.
For Veterans Exposed to Agent Orange
Over the years, the VA has stepped up its efforts to reach out and address health conditions in Veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Veterans can now file claims for disability compensation for exposure to the herbicide. The conditions are outlined above.
The VA’s Agent Orange page also states: “If we denied your claims for any of these conditions in the past, we’ll automatically review your case again. You don’t need to file another claim. We’ll send you a letter to let you know we’re reviewing your case.” This pertains to the most recent additions to the list of presumptive conditions: Bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism.
If you are a Veteran of the Vietnam War and served in locations that exposed you to Agent Orange, the VA states that you have a presumption of exposure. You will need to do the following to put together a claim:
- File a claim for disability compensation and submit your evidence (supporting documents).
- Submit a medical record that shows you have illness related to Agent Orange exposure and military records showing how you were exposed to Agent Orange during your service.
- If your illness isn’t on the list of presumptive diseases, you’ll need to provide one of the following types of evidence: Evidence showing the problem started during – or got worse because of – your military service, or scientific or medical evidence stating that the illness you have is caused by Agent Orange. This scientific proof may include an article from medical journal or publish research study.
- If you meet the service requirements for presumption of contact, you can schedule an Agent Orange Registry health exam. This is a free health exam that could alert you to illnesses that may be related to contact with herbicides. By being part of the registry, you’ll also be helping the VA better understand and serve those affected by Agent Orange-related illness. Keep in mind that this is not a VA claim exam, that exam is associated with your claim for disability compensation. To schedule an Agent Orange Registry exam, contact your local VA environment health coordinator and learn what to expect at the exam.
Below are some helpful links should you decide to pursue a disability claim with the VA:
- Birth defects linked to Agent Orange
- Vietnam War Veterans health issues
- Request your military service records (DD214 and others)
- Get your VA medical records (VA Blue Button)
- Find out how to apply for VA health care