Agent Orange is the name of a blend of herbicides that the U.S. military sprayed in the Republic of Vietnam and surrounding areas during the Vietnam War. It is the combination of two herbicides, the chlorinated phenoxy acids of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. For an explanation of the chemical make-up of the Agent Orange defoliant see the post on Agent Orange, Herbicides, and TCDD Explained. Agent Orange was a part of the herbicidal warfare program Operation Ranch Hand. Agent Orange was sprayed from 1961 to 1971 to remove trees and vegetation in order to reduce areas for enemy hiding and cover. The name Agent Orange comes from the orange colored identifying label on the large, 55-gallon, storage drums. Over 19 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed during the Vietnam War without the knowledge of the debilitating health risks and effects.
During the Vietnam War, over 9 million Americans served on active duty with nearly 3 million serving in the Republic of Vietnam. Many Veterans who served during this time were exposed to these toxic chemicals leading to the development of various diseases. Beginning in 1990, the Veterans Administration (VA) recognized that certain cancers and other serious health issues developed by these veterans were associated with Agent Orange and other herbicide exposure during military service in the sprayed areas. Under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, the VA must provide presumptive service connection for diseases the Institute of Medicine found as positively associated with Agent Orange.
The VA lists the diseases that are assumed to be related to a Veteran’s military service, known as presumptive diseases. This means that service connection for the disease is presumed due to the in-service event of exposure to Agent Orange. By law, Veterans that set foot in the Republic of Vietnam or served on its inland waterways during the Vietnam War and are currently suffering from one of the Agent Orange diseases are presumed to be exposed to Agent Orange. The presumptive connection, in most cases, leads to service connection for the disease.
This means that the Veteran may be eligible for Agent Orange benefits by proving that they: (1) have a current disability of one of the Agent Orange connected diseases and they (2) served in an area where the VA recognizes that Agent Orange exposure occurred. It is important to note that the Veteran must prove that he or she has a current disability or residual effects from an in-service disease. The Veteran solely proving exposure to Agent Orange due to service in a sprayed area is not enough. Such exposure must have produced a disease or residuals of a disease due to the exposure to Agent Orange. Evidence of service and medical conditions can be developed from service records, service medical records, private medical records, and expert medical opinions. For some of the non-cancer conditions connected with Agent Orange a third requirement is necessary for service connection. This third requirement is that the disease developed within one year of the last day of exposure to Agent Orange.
A large area of dispute in connection with exposure to Agent Orange is in regard to the veterans who served aboard ships offshore of the Republic of Vietnam without setting foot on land, known as “Blue Water” Vietnam veterans. Under present law, Blue Water Vietnam veterans are not guaranteed presumptive service connection and must prove exposure. This is unlike “Brown Water” Vietnam veterans whom service connection is presumed due to their service on vessels in inland waterways of the Republic of Vietnam. While it is difficult to prove a factual connection between their ailments and direct exposure to Agent Orange, thousands of Blue Water Vietnam Veterans are being denied benefits they deserve from serving their country. As legislation has gone back and forth on providing the presumptive service connection for Blue Water Vietnam Veterans, pending legislation introduced into the House of Representatives in 2015 looks to quash this debate and provide the presumptive service connection necessary and deserved to these veterans.