Over the last several decades, the devastating impact caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War has become clear. For the majority of American military personnel who were exposed to the deadly chemical, some relief is now possible through treatment and compensation benefits offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Yet for scores of others, the solutions aren’t as clear cut. U.S. military personnel serving in locations such as the Panama Canal — the busy waterway system through which so many ships carrying the toxic agent passed — have faced frustration.
For those Vietnam veterans who served in Panama, proving their own exposure, as well as the long term effects on themselves and their families, has been an exercise in frustration.
The Panama Paradox
In many ways, veterans who’ve experienced past or ongoing issues from Agent Orange have made headway in proving how severely the toxin can impact human health. Veterans and their advocates have also shown that exposure wasn’t limited to areas such as air force bases in Vietnam, Korea, or Thailand in the 1960s and 70s.
In fact, the U.S. government has now recognized that Agent Orange also impacted personnel who worked or lived near storage and testing facilities in various parts of the world during the Vietnam War. These sites include facilities in the United States, as well as outside the U.S. facilities in Cambodia, Canada, Korea, India, and Thailand.
Yet there remains no formal recognition that part of this “outside the U.S.” group might include the Panama Canal zone, where ships heading for these facilities passed through. While it has been confirmed that many of the ships known to have carried Agent Orange went through the Panama Canal, not enough documentation exists that any of the canisters may have been off-loaded there.
In fact, for too long the Panama Canal zone has been left out of the loop when it comes to caring for and compensating veterans who served in that region. That means that veterans who experience symptoms potentially related to Agent Orange, and who served in the Panama Canal zone, don’t have an automatic process by which they can claim the appropriate VA benefits.
Additional Accusations of Agent Orange Use in Panama
Some veterans have asserted that not only did the toxic agent pass through and get stored in the Panama region but that the military actually conducted defoliation tests in the area.
One U.S. army veteran, for example, told reporters that he’d personally seen “hundreds of barrels” of Agent Orange sprayed on a lake near Panama City, as well as near the canal itself. These tests were conducted during the 1960s and 70s, according to multiple claims.
In fact, documentation from the 1970s has been unearthed which shows that herbicides were detected in soil and water collected near the Panama Canal zone. Specifically, some of the samples yielded the same compound as that found in Agent Orange.
Additional military documentation shows that U.S. Army testing to control vegetation in the zone was conducted in the 1970s. The reports specifically mention compounds that are used in Agent Orange.
The Long-Lasting Impact of Agent Orange
Veterans who served in the Panama region during the Vietnam War are still fighting to have this region included in the recognized list of areas in which Agent Orange exposure was possible.
But the consequences of the exposure itself are no longer being denied by the government.
As a defoliation method, Agent Orange was designed to kill any greenery that could potentially hide enemy soldiers familiar with landscape — especially when it came to the sheltering foliage provided by trees and tall plants. The herbicidal “cocktail” nicknamed Agent Orange contained several components, including the extremely toxic dioxin known as TCDD.
In the decades following the Vietnam War, veterans and their biological offspring have experienced the consequences of TCDD. The National Academy of Medicine has identified a range of health conditions caused by Agent Orange, both for those directly exposed to it and in some cases as birth defects in children of affected veterans.
Exposure to Agent Orange for veterans and citizens living in the targeted areas has been linked to an increased risk for various types of cancer, including forms of leukemia and lymphoma, as well as prostate, throat, lung, colon, and liver cancer.
Other severe conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure include skin and nerve disorders, respiratory disease, and digestive tract complications.
In addition, birth defects in the children of people exposed to Agent Orange have also been documented. Currently, the government links spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spinal cord, to either male or female U.S. military who served in Vietnam or Thailand between 1962 and 1975, or the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between 1967 and 1971.
Researchers also connect additional birth defects to children of women serving or living in Vietnam between 1961 and 1975. Among the recognized list recognized by Veteran’s Affairs include congenital heart disease, cleft palate, hip dysplasia, and fused digits, along with a dozen others.
But for veterans who served in the Panama Canal Zone during the Vietnam War era, there are currently no guidelines for proving chronic health problems in themselves, or birth defects in their children.
VA Benefits for Confirmed Sites
Veterans who served in Vietnam, Thailand, or the DMZ — or in facilities acknowledged to have tested or stored Agent Orange — have a clear path for applying for the appropriate benefits. These include:
- Health care benefits, starting with a comprehensive Agent Orange Registry health exam. The exam is free and doesn’t require enrollment in the VA health care system. It includes a physical exam, medical history questions, possible exposure questions, and additional testing if warranted.
- Testing and treatment for Agent Orange health issues. Treatment may be referred to as the VA’s War Related Illness and Injury Study Center, which specializes in difficult-to-diagnose medical disorders, as well as other conditions linked to Agent Orange and other wartime herbicides.
- Disability compensation. For veterans who had immediate or decades-later disabilities linked to a medical condition related to Agent Orange Exposure, disability payments are possible.
- Survivors’ benefits. If the veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange died as a result of a condition caused by the herbicide, spouses and dependent children may qualify for survivors’ benefits. This also extends to dependent parents of the veteran. These benefits can include financial compensations, health care, home loan benefits and help with education costs.
- Benefits for children of veterans who were born with birth defects possibly related to the parent’s exposure to Agent Orange. These may include vocational training, health care, and disability payments.
What Can Veterans Who Served in Panama Do?
Although it’s not as straightforward to apply for VA benefits eligibility related to Agent Orange exposure for those who served in Panama, it’s not impossible to do so. The main difference is that these cases are evaluated individually, rather than being automatically processed.
Veterans will need to prove that they were exposed to Agent Orange during their time of service, that they have a condition consistent with known Agent Orange effects, and that there is a reasonable link between their exposure and their medical condition.
This can obviously be a complicated process, especially given the intervening decades since the Vietnam war. Look for professionals who are experienced in researching and establishing credibility on the topic.