During the Vietnam War, the United States sprayed millions of gallons of herbicides in Vietnam to destroy enemy cover and to interrupt the enemy’s food supply. Agent Orange was a mixture of two different kinds of highly toxic chemicals. Today, we are aware of the significant health effects related to herbicide exposure. While Agent Orange is most publicly associated with Vietnam, there has been growing concern related to its use and storage in other locations, including Guam.
November 2018 GAO Report Addresses Agent Orange in Guam
In November 2018, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report focusing on the actions needed to improve the accuracy and communication of information regarding the use, testing, and storage locations of Agent Orange outside of Vietnam. The House report accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 included a provision that GAO review the government’s handling of Agent Orange on Guam. To gather information, GAO reviewed agency policies, documents, and available archival records; interviewed Department of Defense (DoD), VA, and other agency officials; and met with a non-generalizable sample of 38 veterans and a Veterans Service Organization. In doing so, GAO uncovered that the DoD’s official list of herbicide use, testing, and storage locations outside of Vietnam that is posted on the VA website is inaccurate and incomplete.
The report examines (1) information the federal government has about the procurement, distribution, use, and disposition of Agent Orange at locations in the U.S. and its territories, including Guam; (2) DoD and VA efforts to make information about where Agent Orange and its components were tested and stored available; and (3) challenges associated with Agent Orange testing in locations such as Guam.
Findings Related to Agent Orange in Guam
Available documentation indicated that at least one vessel carrying Agent Orange passed through Guam on its route to Vietnam, but such information is incomplete. Specifically, GAO analyzed the available logbooks for 152 of the 158 shipments (approximately 96 percent) of Agent Orange to Southeast Asia and found that the vessels carrying herbicides generally made stops at both foreign and U.S. ports. However, there is no evidence to show whether any cargo was offloaded. Therefore, while the documentation establishes that at least one ship carrying Agent Orange stopped in Guam, it does not explicitly state that it was used there. Importantly, DoD has decided to move forward with testing for the acid form of the components of Agent Orange in Guam. It is expected to complete updates for the sampling and analysis plan, field sampling, analysis, and reporting in early 2019. Specifically, DoD with the U.S. and Guam Environmental Protection Agencies are conducting testing at Anderson Air Force Base on Guam.
The Myth of Tactical vs. Commercial Herbicides
Available records show that DoD stored and used “commercial” herbicides on Guam, possibly including those that contain components of Agent Orange, during the 1960s and 1970s. Those documents do not indicate the use of “tactical” herbicides on Guam. The distinction is a myth, concocted decades ago by the proponents of herbicide use.
VA often attempts to distinguish tactical and commercial herbicides as a basis on which to deny service connection claims based on exposure to herbicides. This practice is demonstrated when comparing claims of exposure to herbicides by veterans who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War versus veterans who served in Vietnam. Despite veterans being exposed to the same herbicide agents in both Thailand and Vietnam, VA states that the herbicides to which veterans were exposed in Thailand were “commercial herbicides” and the herbicides to which veterans were exposed in Vietnam were “tactical herbicides.” However, the environment in which an herbicide is used does not change its chemical composition. The fact remains that both groups of veterans were exposed to the same herbicide agents. VA defines herbicide agent under 38 CFR § 3.307(a)(6) as “2,4-D; 2,4,5-T and its contaminant TCDD; cacodylic acid; and picloram”.
Presumption of Exposure to Agent Orange
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 required VA to create a presumption of exposure for which VA will presume that veterans who served in specific locations during defined timeframes were exposed to herbicides. Presumptions of exposure help replace the element of service connection that requires veterans to have an in-service event that caused their current disability. In these instances, VA counts the in-service exposure as the event. VA presumes that veterans who served in the following locations during the specified timeframes were exposed to Agent Orange:
- Veterans with service in the Republic of Vietnam (i.e. boots on the ground, Brown Water, and Blue Water veterans) between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975
- In or near the Korean DMZ between April 1, 1968 and August 31, 1971
- Active duty reservist personnel who had regular contact with C-123 aircraft between 1969 and 1986
Importantly, VA does not currently offer a presumption of exposure or service connection for Vietnam-era veterans who served in Guam. These veterans can still apply for service connection on a direct basis, but must prove first that they were exposed to herbicides during service, and that their current disability is related to their exposure to Agent Orange.