Agent Orange Secondary Diseases: What Vietnam Veterans Should Know
UPDATE: As of January 2020, Blue Water claims are being processed.
For the past several years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 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 Vietnam era veteran who served (or, now, in some other areas where Agent Orange was stored or sprayed) during the relevant time period is presumed to have experienced Agent Orange exposure. Under upcoming expected changes to VA law, Blue Water Navy veterans who served on ships that were docked in certain harbors will soon be added to the list of veterans who are presumed to have been exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange.
Presumptive Conditions to Agent Orange Exposure
The VA has identified a list of diseases that it accepts as having been caused by Agent Orange. These presumptive diseases are based on scientific evidence. The presumptive diseases include:
- Chronic B-Cell Leukemia
- Hodgkin’s Disease
- Multiple Myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Prostate Cancer
- Respiratory Cancers
- Soft Tissue Sarcomas
- Ischemic Heart Disease
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Peripheral Neuropathy
- Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus
- AL Amyloidosis
If a veteran who has been exposed is affected by one of the presumptive diseases on this list, it is presumed to have been caused by his exposure to herbicide Agent Orange and will, then, be considered service connected. But there is one important thing that many veterans either do not realize or forget – if your service-connected condition causes you to develop other medical conditions, you may be able to be service connected for those conditions as well.
Secondary Conditions due to Agent Orange Exposure
Secondary service connection is a way to be granted service connection for a disability that is the result of a service-connected condition. Secondary service connection applies where either a service-connected condition contributes to the development of a new disability or where a service-connected disability aggravates (worsens) a non-service-connected condition. If secondary service connection is granted under the second theory (aggravation), then the veteran will be compensated for the degree of disability that is over and above the degree of disability that existed before the aggravation. It is important to note that a secondary disability can manifest at any time, and often does not manifest until years after service. The important thing in these cases is medical evidence that the secondary disability is the result of a service-connected condition.
Many of the diseases on the Agent Orange presumptive list can cause secondary conditions. One common type of secondary service connection is for disabilities that are a result of the treatment of a service-connected disability, for instance, radiation therapy for cancer. Another common example is secondary service connection for disabilities that are the result of diabetes mellitus, such as peripheral neuropathy. There are also many cases where a veteran will develop depression due to the negative effects of his or her service-connected disability.
Proving Secondary Service Connection
Remember that for any instance of secondary disability, proving secondary service connection requires competent evidence that it is as likely as not that the service-connected condition caused or aggravated the claimed disability.
The best evidence for these cases is medical evidence and a medical opinion from a healthcare provider that is able to link the service-connected disability to the development or aggravation of the claimed disability. It is very difficult to win a secondary service connection case without medical evidence, because the root of the argument is a medical issue linking two disabilities. So, be sure to obtain medical records when making this type of VA disability claim.
One situation where non-medical evidence may be useful is in the case of secondary service connection for depression as a result of a service-connected disability. In such cases, the veteran should attempt to provide buddy statements from friends and family members detailing the veteran’s struggle with depression due to the service-connected disability. It is important to note that when friends and family members provide these statements, they should focus only on the veteran’s service-connected disabilities, so that the VA is not able to point to any non-service-connected reasons for the veteran’s depression. But as mentioned above, medical evidence is still preferred in these cases, so the veteran should attempt to get an opinion from a doctor regarding the nexus between his or her depression and the service-connected disability as well.
TDIU & SMC for Secondary Service Connection due to Agent Orange
Claiming secondary service connection for conditions that are caused by your main service connected condition is one way to get as high of a disability rating as possible. You should also apply for Total Disability Rating based on Individual Unemployability if your service connected conditions prevent you from obtaining and maintaining a gainful occupation. If you are unable to work because of your service connected condition, it is important to file a claim for individual unemployability with the VA, not only so you receive benefits at the 100 percent rate, but so you can receive Special Monthly Compensation as well. Special Monthly Compensation (SMC) is compensation that is awarded above and beyond the 100 percent disability payments for conditions that are more serious and more debilitating than for which the 100 percent rate is able to compensate. For instance, you may be eligible for SMC if you are housebound or need aid and attendance. Or, you may be able to receive SMC for the loss of use of your hands, feet, or vision. Note that SMC is not a separate claim, and is instead part of the original appeal. When you appeal for a higher rating, it is a good idea to also appeal for individual unemployability and any SMC to which you are entitled.
For Blue Water veterans who will finally be eligible for presumptive service connection under the expected changes to VA law, it is important to know what benefits are available to you, including the ability to make claims for secondary conditions, so you do not leave any benefits that you are owed on the table.
Have Questions About Your VA Disability Benefits?
Former military service members who served in the Vietnam War, may meet the eligibility requirements for disability compensation for health conditions connected to Agent Orange herbicide exposure. If the VA denied your claim for disability benefits, contact the team at Hill & Ponton today for a free case evaluation.
UPDATE: As of January 2020, Blue Water claims are being processed.
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