LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KARK) – A group of Vietnam-era Veterans, all suffering chronic diseases, believes exposure to herbicides during their service in Thailand in support of the war is killing them.
"Agent Orange Thailand Vets are often the 'orphans' of the Vietnam War, and often have the hardest path to proving exposure to Agent Orange," writes attorney Chris Attig on his website.
Bill Rhodes of Mena, Ark., counts himself among those orphans. He reached out to Working 4 You, claiming a change in the law needed to happen to help serve thousands of Veterans across the United States suffering from illnesses they believe are linked to herbicide exposure while serving in Thailand.
A Bit of History
It is well-documented that Agent Orange, a mix of adapted commercial herbicides and one of among a set of "Rainbow Herbicides" developed for Vietnam War use, was widely sprayed in Vietnam for jungle growth control and crop destruction. In the demand for production, Agent Orange was known to have been contaminated with dioxin, which scientific studies have shown to be linked to a whole host of diseases.
In fact, Veterans Affairs has acknowledged that there's a connection between roughly a dozen diseases and exposure to the herbicide.
Troops with the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines also served at bases and military installations in Thailand in support of the war effort. Troops were stationed across Southeast Asia – with operations in Cambodia, Laos, Guam, Korea and Japan.
Veterans Affairs Approach to Exposure Claims
Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991 creating a recognition of linkage between herbicide exposure in Vietnam service and certain diseases, and ordering the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop procedures for studying the effects of herbicide exposure and providing benefits and compensation to affected Veterans.
The VA has approached review of Agent Orange or herbicide exposure claims by setting up a few basic rules:
- If you have "boots on the ground" in Vietnam and a disease on the presumptive connection list (linked here), your claim is approved.
- If you are a Navy Veteran who served in the inland waterways, the same rule applies.
- If you served in the demilitarized zone of Korea, same rules.
Where things get complicated for Veterans, are the rules regarding service in Thailand and elsewhere.
In 2010, the VA acknowledged that a Department of Defense report (commonly referred to as the CHECO report) uncovered through a Veteran attorney's Freedom of Information Request provided "evidence that there was a significant use of herbicides on the fenced-in perimeters of military bases in Thailand to remove foliage that provided cover for enemy forces."
But the VA limits that presumption of exposure to only a few Royal Thai Air Force Bases, a few categories of service members, and only to those who served in security or police forces "on or near the perimeter." The VA does not define what "on or near the perimeter" means.
Exposed and Ignored?
That is where Bill Rhodes comes in. He served in Thailand at Nam Phong, commonly referred to as The Rose Garden. It was a nearly defunct Royal Thai air strip that the U.S. military revamped and renovated. According to Veterans Affairs, it is not one of the bases recognized as having herbicide exposure.
"This is my first claim, and it was a denial," Rhodes said, walking us through the piles of paperwork. The denial reads: "You are not stationed at one of the Royal Thai air bases recognized for herbicide exposure."
And "denied" has defined Bill Rhodes life for the past six years, as he's filed two claims for VA benefits after developing illnesses linked to herbicide exposure, including prostate cancer and diabetes.
In the meantime, he's collected stacks of documents and connected with hundreds of Veterans from across the country. They fought the same war during Vietnam. They fight the same war now: wanting the VA to admit their health conditions are linked to herbicide exposure.
In the interest of showing how widespread the Veterans are across America, Bill Rhodes invited Ed Henderson, Bruce Gouldsberry, Jay Cole and Harmon Snipes to sit down with us to talk about their fight for benefits, why they believe the VA's standards are impractical and unfair, and why they hope legislation will offer them a "fair shake," hopefully before they die.
Bruce Gouldsberry – Illinois
Bruce Gouldsberry lives in Illinois. He served not only in Vietnam, but also at Nam Phong Thailand. His exposure is presumed, and he receives benefits through the VA due to his time in Vietnam, but he says he works to help his fellow Veterans establish their cases for exposure in Thailand – because he believes herbicide use there has been proven to be widespread.
"What's the one thing we have in common besides our health problems -- being in Southeast Asia with Agent Orange...herbicides," Gouldsberry said.
Ed Henderson – Michigan
Ed Henderson has suffered four heart attacks, starting in his forties, and 90 percent blockages in his arteries. Ischemic Heart Disease is a presumed condition of herbicide exposure. He has no family history of heart disease, was not overweight and exercised regularly. He was part of a top-secret "spy unit" at Non Sung, also not recognized as affected by the VA.
"My claim has been in for four years. Others have said five years, six years," Henderson said. "The VA does nothing about it other than – deny, deny, and hope they die," he said.
Jay Cole – Indiana
Type II Diabetes, also a presumed condition, is plaguing Jay Cole. He hails from Indiana and served at the Royal Thai Air Force Base at U-Tapao. It is recognized as herbicide exposure base, but the VA hasn't accepted his evidence that he served "at or near" the perimeter.
The VA does not define what "at or near the perimeter" means, but it is often cited as a reason for the denials in many cases at the regional level. Those decisions can be widely inconsistent across the country, as was the case for Cole.
"My claim was denied twice. But other aircraft maintenance people working the same flight line have had theirs approved," he said. "I had a great Veteran Service Officer, but even she was frustrated, because what she had seen work for other Veterans as sufficient evidence resulted in a denial in my case."
Harmon Snipes – Georgia
Harmon Snipes served at Nam Phong along with Gouldsberry and Rhodes. He's also suffering from heart disease, going on several years in the appeals process to establish exposure. According to him, he saw firsthand spraying at the base, during morning runs along the perimeter fence.
The VA hasn't considered that credible evidence of exposure.
"I would see spraying from the back of a truck, and it was hand spraying. Do I know what they were spraying? No. I'm not 100 percent sure," he said. "But it would keep the area barren. There was no vegetation. It was just dirt."
"You feel like cattle. You put in your claim, and you're in one fence. They deny it and they move you to another pen. This goes on for years. In a lot of ways, we just want to be treated like humans," Snipes said.
"No Doubt of Agent Orange Exposure"
According to former Navy Seabee Richard Kilgore, he personally sprayed herbicides all over the base location. He served at Nam Phong and worked in the construction unit tasked with establishing it as a functional base in 1972.
According to Kilgore, he and other Seabees had located a stockpile of barrels in a storage building on the base that included the dark, orange-banded barrels of herbicide they had seen and used in Vietnam.
"[Spraying herbicides] was nothing remarkable. It's not something we did every day. It's something that when it did happen it was just work that had to be done. It was just something - a task that had to be performed," Kilgore told us in a phone conversation. ""We didn't ask anyone for it or get clearance to do it - because we used it before - we didn't have any reservation about using it."
Kilgore wrote a letter for Rhodes to include in his appeals to the VA to offer proof that herbicides were used not only on the perimeter of Nam Phong, but within the confines of the base. Kilgore wrote in his letter that he had no doubts everyone in Nam Phong was exposed to Agent Orange.
I really don't have any doubts. I believe on the list of areas where personnel served and are presumed to have been exposed, it's sort of… it's almost silly to say the exposure would stop at the boundary of one country and another.
We had operations in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand. They date back many, many years. The chemical, herbicides were used all through that area. It's also kind of insane to say Air Force personnel who worked security around these bases are presumed to have exposure, but a Marine is not or Navy personnel, Seabees, is not.
Kilgore also said he recalled aerial spraying at Nam Phong that left the landscape barren, doing far more to cut down the jungle than what localized spray with the herbicide could accomplish.
"I was amazed every time I saw that herbicide used, because it was effective so quickly. From one day to the next, they would spray it and the next day it would just be sticks where there was lush foliage before. There would be sticks sticking up and piles of foliage on the ground."
Errors in Need of Correcting?
These men say de-classified government reports point to all forces in Thailand using herbicides, rather than some limited number of air bases.
Further, they point to orders and memos that instruct herbicide use to be kept within the confines of the installation – not just the perimeter. They believe that undermines the VA's "at or near the perimeter" limitation.
They also note that the VA fails to define the meaning of that term, pointing to a 500-meter wind drift buffer zone that was in place, according to the U.S. Army Field Manual, for ground application to avoid hitting nearby vegetation. These Veterans believe that same buffer zone would apply regarding spray reaching service members.
"Well, everything within our compound was within 500," Ed Henderson said. "No matter what we did or where we were, we were contaminated."
"That's five football fields," Cole said. "It's a large area. And at U-Tapao they acknowledge that there was spraying. I've provided evidence of how close I worked and lived to the perimeter where they say there was spraying. But, I'm two years in and have had to hire an attorney because I just can't deal with the stress of the inconsistency."
And a letter written to a member of Congress, when the legislator requested records related to Agent Orange records, also noted that hand spraying could occur within bases with little to no accountability. That aligns with Kilgore's experience of spraying he alleges happened on Nam Phong and elsewhere.
We sprayed around our camp - and best of my knowledge other Seabees and Marines used the same material to spray around their encampments. It's very non-remarkable, non-memorable, the use of these materials. Because they were so commonly used, he said.
I think it was used all around the perimeters. We had advancing perimeters. When we got there, it was much smaller base than when we left. We didn't always have perimeter fences, but each time we expanded the perimeter there was opportunity to use - and personally I did use some of that herbicide that was available to kill the vegetation. It was much easier than trying to cut it all down.
Tactical or Commercial: Chemical Herbicide Semantics?
Another issue that these men contend with – is the VA's distinction between "tactical herbicides" and "herbicides." VA decisions have relied on the idea that there were no "tactical herbicides" used.
However, the men point to the military's own records, which they contend and a review of the material shows, never refer to tactical herbicides. The National Security Decision Memoradum from 1970 defines herbicides as those "used domestically within the United States in agriculture for weed control and similar purposes.
U.S. Army Field Manual 3-3: Tactical Employment of Herbicides does discuss the tactical employment of herbicides, and notes that various commercial chemical compounds had been modified for use in military operations (see page 2-1). Agent Blue was specifically listed as a commercial formulation. (see page 2-2).
The Veterans Board of Appeals has sided with at least one Veteran who has contended the distinction by the VA was double-talk, noting that the distinction during the war did not exist.
But that presents another challenge for these Veterans. A decision by the Veterans Board of Appeals is non-precedential. What occurs in one case, by one reasoning, doesn't necessarily result in the same outcome for another Veteran with the same circumstances.
"They need to understand that every step we take - every denial is years in between until the next one," said Cole. "We are getting up in the age that we don't have that many years. All we want to do is be compensated accordingly for what the government did to us. We didn't ask for that spray. The government just did it."
Some Veterans further point to a letter written by the VA's go-to expert on herbicide use during Vietnam, known as Lt. Col. Alvin Young.
In a letter released by the USDA National Agricultural Library, Young described the herbicides used in Vietnam and Southeast Asia as the same as those currently used in the United States.For many Veterans, this is clear evidence there was no "tactical" and "commercial" distinction, aside from how those commercial herbicides were implemented.
A Change in VA Policy Unlikely, No Sign of Legislation in the Works for Thailand Vets
As recently as March 2017, a key government official who works to adjudicate Agent Orange and herbicide exposure claims undermined the VBA's authority, and said the dangers of exposure could be considered "hype" and "hysteria" by individual Veterans and the media.
The VA has also contended, and the official's testimony cited above mentions, that Agent Orange use was discontinued "everywhere" in 1971. According to a report from the Aspen Institute, remaining portions of the chemical were taken from locations and destroyed.
However, that's in direct conflict with Richard Kilgore's statements that he discovered what he believes to be Agent Orange at Nam Phong in 1972 while erecting the base there. When asked if he believed the military could account for all the Agent Orange stock available and in country, he doubted it.
"We didn't bring it with us. It was just there. And I don't know how that [keeping tabs on all inventory] could possibly be done under the circumstances. In the Vietnam War, in a combat situation, who is going to be going around inventorying every bit of Agent Orange that's out there and available?" he said. "Of course, in Thailand, when we ran across that material, there was no logbook. We didn't even have that type of ability to inventory. There was nothing there, no inventory to be kept. No record to be kept. It was just there."
Still, the VA has repeatedly cited Young's work in denying that Thailand Vets, and others outside of Vietnam, were largely exposed to herbicides.
Blue Water Navy Veterans are currently fighting for exposure presumption. They served in the waters off the Vietnam mainland, and contend their water systems were contaminated with the spray. That bill has been introduced before, but failed to pass. It currently has 228 cosponsors in the House and 42 cosponsors in the Senate.
The FOSTER act, filed by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Florida, would expand presumption to service members in Guam, the Phillipines, and other locations.
Thailand Vets had hoped the FOSTER Act, which currently features only six co-sponsors in the House, would expand presumption to their service as well. Their hopes, so far, have been unfounded.
One group of Veterans, in no way directly connected to Vietnam, did win the fight for exposure. Through the dogged efforts of a Veteran who flew repurposed C-123 planes that had disseminated and hauled Agent Orange during Vietnam.
All for One, and One for All
Speaking to these five Veterans, they feel they represent the hundreds of others whom they have spoken with and shared resources. Many of them have little hope that their claims will be resolved before their families are writing their obituaries.
"We know we're going to die. When you have three plus diseases associated with herbicides, your time is numbered," Ed Henderson said.
"There's more people than just us as individuals," said Harmon Snipes. "There are other guys out there suffering just as much as us, and just as bad. They and their families are going through the same things."
These Veterans, they say, have had to retire early and have required large commitments from family. They've lost opportunities at pensions, retirement and ongoing benefits for their families because of health conditions all five of these (and hundreds of others) attribute to their time in Southeast Asia.
Their problem, at this point, is the inability to prove their claims. Many of them must scrap together documents from one another to try and establish an argument. Some of their records, tours of temporary duty and even service locations are reported inaccurately or incompletely, they contend.
They've created websites and Facebook groups to attempt to assist new-comers and those fighting for years.
Another hurdle is that they are aging. Several of the illnesses on the VA's list of presumptive diseases are also illnesses of aging.
"How do you respond to the idea that huge portions of the population are also suffering from some of these diseases. Prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease. Some people might say you all are simply getting older and you can't connect those illnesses to exposure 40 years ago," this reporter asked.
"We went. We served. They sprayed the base, which included every place we worked and where we lived - in the hooch or barracks," said Jay Cole. "I'm the only one in my family on both sides that's ever had diabetes, and I feel like they were the cause of it."
These men see themselves as having fought alongside one another more than 40 years ago. They are fighting alongside, and for one another, now as well.
"You served your country, sometimes give your life," Bill Rhodes said, choking back tears. "Then the VA is supposed to take care of you because you've done that. It hasn't happened. So, we must fight this fight for one another. A lesson I learned in the Marines has stuck with me. You don't ever give up. And I don't plan to."