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The Neglected U.S. Victims of Agent Orange
The Health 202

The Neglected U.S. Victims of Agent Orange

The Department of Veterans Affairs has long given Vietnam veterans disability compensation for illness connected to Agent Orange, widely used to defoliate Southeast Asian battlefields during the U.S. war.

Less well known: The powerful herbicide combination was also routinely used to kill weeds at domestic military bases. Those exposed to the chemicals at the bases are still waiting for the same benefits and, in some cases, are hitting a familiar obstacle — government opacity.

In February, VA proposed a rule that for the first time would allow compensation for Agent Orange exposure at 17 U.S. bases in a dozen states where the herbicide was tested, used or stored.

But the list excludes about four dozen bases where Pat Elder, an activist and director of the environmental advocacy group Military Poisons, says he’s documented the use or storage of Agent Orange. Among them is Fort Ord, a former Army base in Monterey County, Calif. Documents gathered by Elder and others, including a report by an Army agronomist, a journal article and records related to hazardous material cleanups, establish the use of Agent Orange at the facility.

“In training areas, such as Fort Ord, where poison oak has been extremely troublesome to military personnel, a well-organized chemical war has been waged against this woody plant pest,” reads a 1956 article in the journal the Military Engineer.

“Until Fort Ord is recognized by VA as a presumptive site, it’s probably going to be a long, difficult struggle to get some kind of compensation,” said Mike Duris, a veteran who trained at the base and was later diagnosed with prostate cancer.

VA considers prostate cancer a “presumptive condition” for Agent Orange disability compensation, meaning the agency presumes the illness is linked to exposure to the chemical. It acknowledges that those who served in specific locations were likely exposed and their illnesses are tied to military service. The designation expedites affected veterans’ disability claims.

Agent Orange is a 50-50 mixture of two chemicals known as 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. Herbicides with the same chemical structure, although slightly modified, were widely available in the 1950s and ‘60s, sold commercially and used on practically every base in the United States, said Gerson Smoger, a lawyer who argued before the Supreme Court for Vietnam veterans to have the right to sue Agent Orange manufacturers.

2,4,5-T contains the dioxin TCDD, a known carcinogen linked to a number of cancers, chronic conditions and birth defects. The Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of 2,4,5-T in the United States in 1979.

VA says it based its proposed rule on information provided by the Defense Department, and that the Pentagon’s review “found no documentation of herbicide use, testing or storage at Fort Ord.”

Patricia Kime contributed reporting.

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