The U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War.
Now, several decades later, veterans are arriving at the Hubbard County Veteran Service Office with questions about AO, Greg Remus told commissioners this week.
In the third quarter of 2014, he saw 681 Vietnam vets, up from last year’s 493 for the same period. About two per month arrive having been diagnosed with AO-related cancer or heart disease, he said.
Most veterans know that if they were stationed in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975, regardless of length of time, the VA will presume they were exposed to AO, Remus said.
This includes veterans who served aboard smaller river patrol and swift boats that operated on the inland waterways of Vietnam (also known as “Brown Water Veterans”).
Many veterans don’t know that the military has also admitted to using AO in Korea and Thailand, he said.
Veterans who served in a unit in or near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) anytime between April 1, 1968 and August 31, 1971 are also considered exposed.
And Air Force veterans who served on Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) bases near U-Tapao, Ubon, Nakhon Phanom, Udorn, Takhli, Korat, and Don Muang, and Army Veterans who provided perimeter security on bases in Thailand near the base perimeter anytime between Feb. 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975 are considered exposed.
The conversation with Vietnam vets almost always begins with an explanation of what diseases are caused by exposure to AO, the Veterans Service officer said.
The diseases include: AL amyloidosis, chronic B-cell leukemia, chloracne (or similar acneform disease), diabetes mellitus type 2, Hodgkin’s disease, ischemic heart disease, multiple myeloma, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathy, acute and sub-acute porphyria cutanea tarda, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers (including lung cancer), and soft tissue sarcomas.
Most veterans believe they can be tested to see if AO is in their body. The AO registry exam will not confirm exposure to Agent Orange; the intent of the exam is to detect “presumptive diseases” related to the exposure to AO, he explained.
“I recommend all veterans who were exposed to AO should have this exam,” Remus stressed. It is free to veterans who believe they were exposed.
The exam is not a disability compensation exam. Enrollment in the VA’s health care system is not necessary, he explained.
The registry data helps the VA to understand and respond to these AO- related health problems more effectively, Remus explained.
“We routinely enroll veterans into the VA healthcare system and simultaneously submit a claim for compensation to connect the illness as a presumptive to AO exposure,” he said.
If veterans are diagnosed with an AO-associated disease, they are considered to be 100 percent disabled, and eligible for monetary benefits and free treatment.
Remus expressed concern with Iraq and Afghanistan vets in years ahead. “They’ve had unique exposures to radiation and biological agents,” he said. “It will take time for the diseases to manifest. I hope it isn’t as severe as Agent Orange. We want to take care of vets for what they’ve sacrificed.”
The Veterans Service office saw 190 Southwest Asian vets in this year’s third quarter, up from 159 a year ago.
Remus said veterans are being encouraged to apply online, but knowledge of available benefits is key to the process.
The number of World War II veterans aided by the Veterans Service office in the third quarter dropped from 100 last year to 66 in 2014. Korean vets’ visits were up for the same period, 87 last year compared with 127 in 2014.
Transportation of veterans via the Heartland Express and the DAV Legion van is working well, he reports.
A state grant funds the Heartland Express, transporting veterans to VA facilities in St. Cloud, Brainerd, Bemidji and Minneapolis at no charge to veterans.
The grant has reduced the county’s cost from $11,000 to $3,000 in 2013-14, Remus told commissioners
The van transports passengers to the Fargo VA site Wednesdays and Fridays.
In the first 10 months of 2014, the van traveled 14,169 miles, making 76 trips with 110 veterans aboard. A total of 500 volunteer hours were logged.
The purpose of the Hubbard County Veteran Service Office is to provide assistance and support to eligible veterans, their dependents and survivors in obtaining benefits through the state and federal Departments of Veterans Affairs, he summarized.
The office provides benefit counseling, claims service, referral and assistance in a variety of other programs.
Contact Remus at 732-3561. The office is located at 201 Fair Ave.
The third Thursday of each month, he’s in Laporte from 9 a.m. to noon at the Lakeport Town Hall and at the ARCC in Akeley from 1 to 3 p.m.