Defense bill does not give Thailand vets ‘presumption’ to key benefits

The newest defense bill would give Vietnam War veterans who have been exposed to Agent Orange presumptive benefits status, more readily opening the door to key benefits in treating the effects of exposure to harmful herbicides.

However, veterans who served in Thailand in the Vietnam era would remain uncovered by the new status, according to a staff member for the House Armed Services Committee.

“The VA (Veterans Affairs), I think, has been unfairly treating this issue for years and denying people coverage that they ought to have, saying things that can clearly be linked to Agent Orange exposure were not. The big ones are … hyperthyroidism, bladder cancer and Parkinsons,” U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in a recent interview with the Military Times.

“This will give people the coverage that they deserve, for what happened with Agent Orange exposure, and I think that’s huge,” Smith added in the story.

But the defense policy bill, known as the NDAA or National Defense Authorization Act, does not extend that presumption of exposure to veterans who served in Thailand.

“Currently, veterans who served in Thailand are not granted presumptive status. The FY21 (fiscal year 2021) NDAA only addresses those who served in Vietnam,” Caleb Randall-Bodman, deputy communications director for the Armed Services committee, said in an email to the Dayton Daily News Friday.

For years, veterans of the Vietnam War who have been exposed to the dangerous chemicals have pushed for “presumptive benefit” status, cutting through red tape in attaining Veterans Affairs benefits.

Veterans of that era served in more than one country, on land and sea. And those who served in nearby Thailand while suffering exposure to herbicides have found they have a higher hurdle to win crucial VA benefits than those who served in Vietnam.

The distinction continues to frustrate vets who served in Thailand.

“The president and senators and Congress need to stop all this BS … and use a common sense approach,” said Thailand veteran Paul Skinner, 66, who has had a disability claim into the VA for illnesses related to what he believes was exposure to toxic herbicides and other chemicals.

“The old politicians start these wars but send the young to fight them,” Xenia resident Skinner added. “But then when it is time to help the veteran from their decisions and mistakes, they want to ignore us.”

Questions were also sent to a representative of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

On background, those close to lawmakers in Congress have said that the incidence of Agent Orange use in Thailand is seen as more limited, compared to its use in Vietnam.

At the height of the war, some 50,000 American military personnel were stationed in Thailand. The herbicides were used as a defoliant — to kill plants and vegetation at the perimeter or fence-line of U.S. bases so that base personnel could see anyone approaching that fence-line.

Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to types of leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma and other conditions.

A VA spokeswoman told the Dayton Daily News last year that the department strives to help Thailand veterans from that era. But that distinction between those who served in Thailand and those who served in Vietnam is anchored in law, she said.

No vote had been scheduled on the new defense bill (as of Friday afternoon), but on Wednesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Ranking Member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, issued a joint statement saying both chambers of Congress have reached agreement on the bill.

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