For the past several years, the VA has acknowledged that veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 were likely exposed to tactical herbicides such as Agent Orange. The VA regulations mandate that any veteran who served in Vietnam (or, now, in some other areas where Agent Orange was stored or sprayed) during the relevant time period is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. The VA has identified a list of diseases which it accepts as having been caused by Agent Orange. If a veteran who has been exposed is affected by one of these diseases, it is presumed to have been caused by his exposure to Agent Orange and will, then, be considered service connected. In 2010, the VA expanded its list of twelve Agent Orange-related diseases to include Parkinson’s disease, chronic B-cell leukemia, and ischemic heart disease.
What is ischemic heart disease? It is a disease which causes lack of blood flow and oxygen to the heart muscle. Not all heart disease qualifies for the presumption, but just because a veteran has not specifically been diagnosed with ischemic heart disease does not mean that he does not have the disease. Ischemic heart disease includes diagnoses such as coronary artery disease, coronary heart disease, ischemic cardiomyopathy and myocardial ischemia. The veteran may or may not have initial symptoms such as shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue, heart palpitations, a sensation of heartburn or indigestion, dizziness and/or lightheadedness. Vietnam-era veterans with heart disease should ask their doctors if their particular diagnosis is a form of ischemic heart disease.
Importantly, so long as the veteran was exposed to Agent Orange (either directly or presumptively), he need not have been diagnosed with ischemic heart disease within any certain time frame. In other words, if a veteran served in Vietnam in 1969 and develops ischemic heart disease forty years later in 2009, he is still entitled to service connection for his disease. In addition, although there are other risk factors for ischemic heart disease, such as smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus, if the veteran has been exposed to Agent Orange, he is entitled to a presumption of service connection even if he has those other risk factors.
In addition to new claims for ischemic heart disease, the VA must also reopen and re-adjudicate the claims of Vietnam-era veterans who applied for compensation for heart disease prior to the change in the VA regulations. The veteran could, then, be entitled to an effective date all the way back to his earlier claim.
On that note, medical research is constantly identifying new links and relationships, and veterans should be aware that just because their particular illnesses or diseases have not yet been recognized as being related to Agent Orange does not mean that they will not be recognized at some point in the future. If the veteran feels that there is a link, it is worth filing the claim. The claim may initially be denied, but if the VA then later recognizes the veteran’s disability as connected to Agent Orange, he could be entitled to an effective date as of the date he filed his claim.