WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following a years-long push by Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced today that it will reverse previous policies that had denied veterans’ claims and allow veterans who flew on Agent Orange-contaminated C-123 planes following the Vietnam War to receive related care and benefits from the VA.
Merkley and Burr have led a bipartisan Senate effort to get justice for these veterans, repeatedly urging the VA to recognize these veterans’ ailments as Agent Orange-related and to give them proper care and compensation through the VA system.
Merkley said after today’s announcement, “These veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service on contaminated aircraft were injured serving our country, and we owe them the best care possible. Whether they were active duty or reservists, their sacrifices should be recognized. I’m glad the VA has finally reached the right decision and the affected veterans will receive justice, and I thank Secretary McDonald for getting this done.”
“The effort of these veterans to secure overdue VA care and benefits for harmful exposure to Agent Orange has not been one of the agency’s finest hours,” said Burr. “This frustrating, four year process has laid bare the lengths that the VA will go to disregard science and the facts of the historical record. I am pleased Secretary McDonald has chosen to finally do the right thing for these ailing veterans, but it shouldn’t have been this hard or taken so long.”
Several years ago, this issue was brought to both senators’ attention by retired Air Force Major Wes Carter, formerly a resident of Asheville, NC and later a resident of McMinnville, OR, who was among the affected veterans. Carter had taken the lead in investigating on behalf of his fellow veterans and organizing efforts to get them the care and benefits they needed.
In 2011, Merkley and Burr began pressing the VA to take action to help C-123 veterans suffering from the aftereffects of Agent Orange exposure. Then, in January of this year, the Institute of Medicine released a study affirming veterans’ claims that they had indeed been exposed to dangerous levels of dioxins on improperly decontaminated aircraft that had carried Agent Orange during the Vietnam War – directly refuting the VA’s past claims that there was insufficient scientific evidence linking exposure to dried Agent Orange to health effects decades later. Merkley and Burr again pressed the VA for action.
In April, they led a bipartisan group of Senators urging the VA to act quickly and to ensure that Air Force reservists, who constitute a majority of those who served on the aircraft, are equally eligible for care and benefits.
After today’s decision by the VA, affected C-123 veterans will be immediately eligible to receive the care and benefits they need for Agent Orange exposure.