Agent Orange benefits
Veterans can get help locally at the Georgia Department of Veterans Service office at 311 Green St. NW, Gainesville. Contact: 770-531-6060.
The hum of aircraft overhead signaled to American fighters on the ground that another herbicide spraying was on its way.
But that wasn’t the only place where troops in the Vietnam War were exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant the U.S. military used to kill vegetation and give the enemy fewer places to hide.
To boost morale, soldiers in the field were treated to steaks, but grills weren’t available, “so they made some makeshift grills out of Agent Orange barrels,” Army veteran Larry Martin said.
“The barrels were readily available. All the guys were allocated to have them as foundations for their tents,” he said. “They were everywhere and (used) for everything.”
Martin and others in a group of Hall County area Vietnam veterans, who meet informally for breakfast each week, spent some time last week talking about their exposure to the
chemical some 40-50 years ago and how they are coping today with the medical aftereffects.
None of the men were affected by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ announcement last month: Air Force reservists who became ill after being exposed to Agent Orange residue while working on planes after the 1955-1975 conflict should be eligible for disability benefits.
But the news still brought back vivid memories of exposure to the defoliant, so dubbed Agent Orange because of an orange stripe on the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored.
At the time, fighters didn’t know the spray’s dangers — including that a key ingredient was cancer-causing dioxin — but they remember how the flyovers were maddening.
“When I heard the helicopter coming in the morning, when they usually did it, I would pull my bandana up because (the spray) would be smothering,” Martin said. “We thought it was killing mosquitos and some of it was, but a lot of it was killing the jungle.”
Compensation now will be available to some 1,500-2,100 Air Reservists who have developed any of 14 medical conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure.
Meagan Lutz, a VA spokeswoman in Washington, didn’t know how many of those live in Georgia. She also didn’t know the number of veterans in Georgia overall receiving benefits for an Agent Orange-related condition.
About 653,000 Vietnam-era veterans have received Agent Orange-related disability benefits since 2002, when the VA officially began tracking the cases, officials have said.
The new rule is not expected to include roughly 200,000 “Blue Water” veterans who say they were exposed to Agent Orange while serving aboard deep-water naval vessels off Vietnam’s coast.
And that has triggered anger among some veteran groups.
“The VA has just really been horrible about this, paying benefits for (Agent Orange) exposure,” said Dave Dellinger, commander of Paul E. Bolding Post 7 American Legion in Gainesville and a Vietnam Veterans of America member.
“And they’re finding (that) kids and grandkids of people who were exposed are having birth defects.”
Area veteran Johnny Hulsey said that when he was first diagnosed with prostate cancer, he underwent 101 radiation treatments at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.
“I had never been to the VA in my life,” he said.
“I thought I was fine and, a year later, I went back for my yearly checkup and my cancer had (spread) to my bones,” Hulsey said. “The hospital costs were getting so high, I had to go to the VA.”
In 2012, the government “finally admitted” his bone cancer was caused by Agent Orange, he said.
Hulsey’s memory of exposure to Agent Orange goes back to when he was in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
“In less than 24 hours after they’d spray, the vegetation looked like it had been burned,” he said. “The jungles and all were completely black.”
Another area veteran, Jerry Peck, said he had chemotherapy treatments that resulted in neuropathy, a nervous system condition that causes numbness, tingling and motor weakness.
He was turned down for benefits because, the VA said, Agent Orange didn’t cause the colon cancer. He’s appealing.
“And because I’m diabetic, I can’t get compensation for neuropathy,” said Peck, who is drawing benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s just the way they do the paperwork.”
Lamar Millsap, a 1968-69 Army veteran who suffers from cancer and diabetes, said the red tape is frustrating.
“Why do you have to go through what you got to go through just to get something that you’re already qualified to get?” he asked.
Lutz said that “typically, when processing a claim, (the VA is) looking at conditions, which are then weighed against Agent Orange criteria.”
The VA and federal law “presumes that certain diseases are a result of exposure to these herbicides,” states the VA website.
“This ‘presumptive policy’ simplifies the process for receiving compensation for these diseases since VA foregoes the normal requirements of proving that an illness began during or was worsened by ... military service.”
Also, the VA says that a veteran who believes he or she has a disease caused by Agent Orange exposure that is not one of the 14 conditions “must show an actual connection between the disease and herbicide exposure during military service.”
Air Force veteran Harold Goss said Agent Orange affected more than just U.S. military personnel.
“What about the Vietnamese themselves? I would say the damages that chemical left 50 years ago are still there,” he said. “If it can kill a tree, you can just imagine the soil damage it caused. Nothing will grow back.”
According to the VA, heavily sprayed areas also included forests at the junction of the borders of Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam, and mangroves on the southernmost peninsula of Vietnam and along shipping channels southeast of the capital, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).
Agent Orange and other herbicides were tested or stored elsewhere, including some military bases in the United States.
Aside from physical problems, area veterans struggle with their emotions over Agent Orange exposure.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘angry’ ... but I feel like some wrong has been done to me,” Millsap said.
Hulsey said, “We all served and lost our buddies over there ... and we thought the war was over. But 50 years later, we’re still battling it. It never ends.”