Thousands of veterans exposed to Agent Orange while serving in the United States will for the first time be eligible for fast-track disability benefits under plans unveiled by the Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday.
The move represents another major expansion of toxic exposure benefits for veterans, this time for individuals suffering from illnesses dating back to the Vietnam War era. The changes follow mandates included in the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — passed by Congress in August 2022.
Over the last two years, a combination of administration moves and new legislation opened access to disability benefits for millions of veterans who incurred injuries from burn pit smoke, radiation contamination and other military toxic exposure events.
In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the proposed moves “would make it easier for veterans exposed to herbicides who served outside Vietnam to access the benefits they so rightly deserve.
“Our goal is to provide every veteran of every era with the VA health care and benefits they deserve, and this is another step in the right direction,” McDonough said.
Rules outlining the change were filed in the Federal Register on Friday, and will still take several months before going into effect. The new proposal would give presumptive benefits status to veterans who served in “locations where herbicides were tested, used, or stored outside of Vietnam.”
That includes military locations in 12 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Tennessee, Texas and Utah — where Agent Orange was present in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. A full list of the specific states and times is available on the VA website.
The rule would also cover troops stationed at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick, Canada, in June 1966 and June 1967; individuals stationed in Kumbla, India, in 1945 and 1946; and expanded timelines for troops who served in Cambodia, the Johnston Atoll, Guam, American Samoa, Korea, Laos, and Thailand during the 1960s and 1970s.
Troops who served in Vietnam between January 1962 and May 1975 — either on the ground or in waterways around the country — already qualify for presumptive benefits status by the department because of Agent Orange exposure.
The toxic defoliant has been linked to a host of cancers and heart illnesses. Presumptive status means that individuals who develop certain illnesses believed caused by the chemicals do not have to document specific instances where they were exposed, but instead only provide service records showing they were in the area presumed contaminated.
As a result, advocates have pushed for broader use of presumptive status for troops who served around toxic chemicals while in the military but may not have been able to document every instance of exposure because of records lost over the years.
Advocates hailed Friday’s announcement.
“This is long overdue justice for many veterans,” said AMVETS National Commander Bill Clark. “I hope these affected heroes and their families see the news today and feel relief. This is more than a policy change; it is an acknowledgment of the sacrifices many veterans and their families made.”
More information on Agent Orange presumptive benefits is available on the VA website.