US government recognizes more illnesses linked to Agent Orange

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The US Veterans Affairs Department said Tuesday it plans add three more conditions to the list of ailments linked to Agent Orange exposure for which Vietnam veterans can receive medical benefits.

Relying on an independent study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric K. Shinseki decided to establish a service-connection for Vietnam Veterans with the three specific illnesses based on the latest evidence of an association with the herbicides referred to as Agent Orange.

The illnesses affected by the recent decision are B cell leukemias, such as hairy cell leukemia; Parkinson's disease; and ischemic heart disease.

Paul Sutton, Staff Sergeant of Marines in Vietnam 1964-1965 and 1967-1968 welcomed the decision, but said it didn't simply wipe away years of suffering.

"This determination by General Shinseki is right for the times. As someone who's been in this fight since October 1977, I've watched the VA and the system allow our brothers and sister suffer and die needlessly for too long."

Chuck Palazzo, a former US Marine and combat veteran in Vietnam (1970-1971) who now lives in Da Nang, told Thanh Nien Weekly the decision was a step in the right direction that would have "a positive effect on many thousands of veterans who would otherwise not have received medical assistance from the government."

But the day was not one for full celebration for people suffering from Agent Orange related maladies, or for the families of those who have already passed on.

"The additional illnesses, sadly, have already taken many lives," said Palazzo. "Had the VA acted quicker, they could have prevented many unnecessary deaths."

He said the 15 presumptive illnesses now recognized by the VA were "till way short of the possible hundreds of afflictions caused by exposure to Agent Orange or being an offspring of someone exposed."

He also pointed out that not only US veterans had been suffering.

"The US Government has not done enough for its own Veterans and families. They have done less for the Vietnamese citizens and their families who were exposed to Agent Orange... what we have given to the Vietnamese in terms of assistance is pennies compared to what is truly needed."

The decision had been a long - and not easy - time coming, according to Sutton.

"Because of my support for the Vietnamese efforts to get the US government to put their money where their mouth is vis-a-vis cleaning up the toxic mess below the 17th parallel, I have taken a lot of crap from brother veterans over the tears, but, fair is fair. Help one, help everyone."

Used in Vietnam to defoliate trees and remove concealment for the enemy, Agent Orange left a legacy of suffering and disability that continues to the present.  Between January 1965 and April 1970, an estimated 2.6 million military personnel who served in Vietnam were potentially exposed to sprayed Agent Orange.

In practical terms, Veterans who served in Vietnam during the war and who have a "presumed" illness don't have to prove an association between their illnesses and their military service.  This "presumption" simplifies and speeds up the application process for benefits.

The Secretary's decision brings to 15 the number of presumed illnesses recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Other illnesses previously recognized under VA's "presumption" rule as being caused by exposure to herbicides during the Vietnam War are:

  • Acute and Subacute Transient Peripheral Neuropathy
  • AL Amyloidosis
  • Chloracne
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
  • Diabetes Mellitus (Type 2)
  • Hodgkin's Disease
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma
  • Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
  • Prostate Cancer
  • Respiratory Cancers, and
  • Soft Tissue Sarcoma (other than Osteosarcoma, Chondrosarcoma, Kaposi's sarcoma, or Mesothelioma)

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