Herbicide exposure in Thailand: is service-connection possible?
Herbicide Exposure in Thailand
Veterans of the Vietnam Era have long fought for recognition of the health problems linked to Agent Orange exposure in Thailand. Agent Orange, named for the identifying orange band on storage drums, was the most common of the “Rainbow Herbicides” used in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries to clear jungle canopy and destroy crops. The herbicide contained one of the most toxic forms of dioxin, a chemical which has since been scientifically linked to some cancers and other diseases.
VA has a “presumptive policy” that concedes exposure to Agent Orange for veterans who had “boots on the ground” in Vietnam or who navigated the country’s inland waterways. But what about the significant number of Air Force and Army veterans who were stationed in Thailand?
VA has conceded that there was substantial use of herbicides at numerous Thailand military bases. They cite the 1973 CHECO Report, which very clearly describes herbicide use around the perimeter of bases in Thailand.
In May 2010, VA published a “Compensation & Pension Service Bulletin” that established a “perimeter policy” which would allow Vietnam Era veterans to prove herbicide exposure in Thailand if they can show that their duties placed them “on or near” the perimeter of their base. The “perimeter policy” was later added to VA’s Adjudication Manual as protocol for processing herbicide exposure claims of Thailand veterans. In 2015, without warning or explanation, the VA did away with this policy by making a change to the Adjudication Manual. However, this change was reversed and Thailand veterans are able to pursue herbicide exposure claims via the perimeter policy once again.
Am I eligible for the perimeter policy?
The Thailand base perimeter herbicide policy requires that the veteran was stationed in Thailand anytime between February 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975. VA acknowledges that, during this time period, the following veterans may have been exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides:
- S. Air Force Veterans who served on Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) bases at U-Tapao, Ubon, Nakhon Phanom, Udorn, Takhli, Korat, and Don Muang, near the air base perimeter.
- S. Army Veterans who provided perimeter security on RTAF bases in Thailand.
- S. Army Veterans who were stationed on some small Army installations in Thailand. However, the Army Veteran must have been a member of a military police (MP) unit or was assigned an MP military occupational specialty whose duty placed him/her at or near the base perimeter.
Not all cases of exposure in Thailand are as clear cut as the above list may suggest. So let’s explore a few of the criteria used by VA to decide disability claims due to Agent Orange exposure.
What counts as “on or near” the perimeter?
In order to take advantage of the perimeter policy, Veterans must provide evidence to show that they were regularly “on or near” the perimeter of the military base where they were stationed. Fences marked the perimeters of Thai bases and evidence shows that there is about a 500-meter drift zone expected from ground spraying systems of herbicides, though VA does not specify exact distances considered “on or near.”
Certain military occupational specialties (MOS) or work positions are naturally associated with work along the base perimeter – positions such as security police or security patrol dog handler. However, with additional evidence, a range of positions can be shown to regularly place someone on or near the perimeter. Typical evidence might include your MOS or position description, performance reviews, statements from veterans who were in your unit, and even maps or images of the Thai base where you were stationed.
If you cannot prove that your work duties placed you “on or near” the perimeter of a Royal Thai Air Force base, your case may still be conceded. VA cannot rule out that the Veteran was not exposed to an herbicide agent elsewhere (other than on or near the base perimeters) on Thailand bases. However, VA will require more direct evidence of exposure.
Commercial vs. Tactical Herbicides
VA has continued to make a distinction between “commercial” as opposed to “tactical” herbicides. They claim that the herbicides used on Thai bases were only commercial herbicides and were therefore not considered an herbicide agent which would give rise to the presumption of service connection for exposure to herbicides, including Agent Orange. As recently as 2016, VA has used this argument to deny benefits to veterans who claim service connection for conditions related to herbicide exposure in Thailand.
However, the 1973 CHECO Report, only declassified in 1989, did not distinguish the herbicides used in Thailand as “commercial.” Additionally, VA Compensation Services has acknowledged that there is “some evidence that the herbicides used on the Thailand base perimeters may have been either tactical, procured from Vietnam, or a commercial variant of much greater strength and with characteristics of tactical herbicides.”
Which disabilities are linked to Agent Orange exposure?
After the class action lawsuit Nehmer v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Agent Orange Act of 1991, the VA has accepted a presumed link between Agent Orange exposure and certain illnesses. Since 1991, the VA’s list of exposure related disabilities has expanded from a few conditions, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and chloracne, to include more than 14 conditions, like prostate cancer and Ischemic Heart Disease. If exposure to Agent Orange is conceded, the list of presumptive disabilities applies to veterans who served in Thailand as well as Vietnam.
- AL Amyloidosis
- Chronic B-cell Leukemias
- Chloracne (or similar acneform disease) – Note: Under VA’s rating regulations, your chloracne must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of exposure to herbicides in order to be considered presumptive.
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
- Hodgkin’s Disease
- Ischemic Heart Disease (includes Coronary Artery Disease, stable and unstable angina, myocardial infarction, and sudden cardiac death)
- Multiple Myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Peripheral Neuropathy, Early-Onset (Note: Under VA’s rating regulations, it must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of herbicide exposure.)
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda (Note: Under VA’s rating regulations, it must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of herbicide exposure in order to be considered presumptive.)
- Prostate Cancer
- Respiratory Cancers(includes lung cancer)
- Soft Tissue Saromas(other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or mesothelioma)
If further disease or disability results from one of the above listed presumptive diseases, you can file a claim for a secondary condition.
If your disability is not on the above list of presumptive diseases but you believe it is related to herbicide exposure in Thailand, you can still file a claim for a different condition. However, in addition to evidence that you worked “on or near” the perimeter of your base, you will have to provide compelling evidence that your condition was caused or aggravated by the conceded herbicide exposure (i.e. a “medical nexus” or link). This evidence usually takes the form of a medical opinion.
Category: Veterans Law