By Chuck N. Baker
(Washington) — Chemical defoliants used by the Department of Defense in Vietnam and other Southeast Asia war zones have long been established by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as having caused serious health issues for those serving in areas where these chemicals were used. In 1969, the VA began acknowledging these health issues and later offered compensation to service members exposed to the herbicides. Many have been diagnosed with serious illnesses that are listed as presumptive medical or health conditions due to exposure to these herbicides.. But such compensation is subject to legal restrictions, depending on where service members were stationed and the distances from which they were exposed. Agent Orange is an umbrella term covering several different “rainbow herbicides” used in several different areas. The term stems from an orange band used on storage drums containing toxic forms of dioxin.
In 1972, the VA established the “perimeter rule,” stating that Agent Orange was only allowed to be sprayed around the outer circle of an area. In many cases involving veterans who served in Thailand, except for those who worked in security, the VA grandfathered the perimeter rule back to 1964. Those who served in areas inside sprayed areas, or inside the perimeter, were often presumed not to have been affected by the chemicals.
The history of the spraying in Southeast Asia is important to know. According to published reports, certain U.S. controlled bases in Thailand were subjected to sniper fire, perimeter penetration and combat engineer attacks. As a result, the Department of Defense began using herbicides within base perimeters as a means of preventing ambushes. Other reports note that in the mid-1960s, Thailand was going through the same growing pains as Vietnam. Bases there were facing the same threats as in Vietnam, which was being covered with aerial sprays, power sprays and hand sprays. The Vietnam program was dubbed Operation Ranch Hand and the government of Thailand later requested aerial spraying from Ranch Hand aircraft, initially to assist with its locust problem. Ranch Hand aircraft were used to fly from Thailand to targets in Laos. Records show a robust relationship between the U.S. military in Thailand and Operation Ranch Hand. Barrels containing herbicides were known to leak and material handlers of these barrels on the flight lines report they were covered with the liquids.
Today, in order to be considered for benefits, the VA requires veterans who served in Thailand prove their duty positions entailed working on the perimeter. U.S. Army Manual 3-3 (dated 1971) advises that a 500-meter buffer zone must be maintained to avoid damage caused by drifts while ground spraying herbicides. The distance between base perimeters and other base activities reportedly was normally well below 500 meters. Soldiers lived, worked, and conducted recreational activities near the perimeter and in areas well within the 500-meter drift zone.
This article can only skim the surface of the labyrinth of government regulations concerning Agent Orange and the perimeter rule. Veterans seeking VA benefits in perimeter rule cases are urged to consult with a NDVS Veterans Service Officer for FREE consultation, and in some cases consider hiring an attorney. In addition to the rulings regarding 1964 and 1972 stipulations, the law firm of Chisholm Chisholm & Kirkpatrick Ltd. reports in May 2010, the 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 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, according to the law firm. In 2015, without warning or explanation, the firm reports the VA did away with that policy by making a change to the Adjudication Manual. However, the change was reversed, and Thailand veterans are able to pursue herbicide exposure claims via the perimeter policy once again. However, this may not be the latest ruling, and further research should be undertaken before making decisions on filing future claims.
All veterans who file for VA benefits of all types must present numerous (mandated) documents and DD-214 separation papers. For claims resulting from service in Thailand, additional documents must show the veteran had regular perimeter security duty. Those documents might include daily work logs, performance evaluation reports and military employment records. If military service records (including the DD-214) cannot be located by the veteran, the government has set up a milConnect platform to request records. A DS Logon account is required and can be obtained by going to the milConnect website and following detailed prompts.