(Washington, DC) – U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, led a bipartisan group of six senators in urging the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to extend the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange to provide more veterans who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) access to critical health care benefits. Currently, only veterans who served in the Korean DMZ during specific dates are granted a presumption of exposure to Agent Orange, which allows easier access to health care and benefits for conditions caused by the toxins. In a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, the senators called on VA to extend the timeframe of the presumption to include veterans affected during the initial herbicide spraying. The letter was also signed by Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
“We urge the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to extend the presumption of Agent Orange Exposure to all the veterans who were affected by herbicide spraying in the Korean DMZ, including those who are currently deemed ineligible because they were in or near the DMZ only during the test phase of defoliation,” the senators wrote. “This presumption will allow easier access to critical health care and other benefits for veterans who urgently need it.”
Blumenthal recently called on VA to extend the timeframe of the presumption at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. During his testimony, Blumenthal referenced the case of Army veteran Eugene Clarke from Redding, Connecticut who has health conditions that could have resulted from Agent Orange exposure while serving in the Korean DMZ. You can read about Clarke’s story here.
The full text of the senators letter is available below:
Dear Secretary McDonald,
Many veterans who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) during the Vietnam War are suffering from significant health conditions associated with exposure to toxic herbicides. Some of these veterans were not present during the full-scale defoliation operation commonly associated with herbicide exposure, but were nonetheless affected by the herbicide testing that preceded it. They are currently excluded from qualifying for the presumption of service connection for diseases associated with exposure to these toxic substances.
We urge the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to extend the presumption of Agent Orange Exposure to all the veterans who were affected by herbicide spraying in the Korean DMZ, including those who are currently deemed ineligible because they were in or near the DMZ only during the test phase of defoliation. This presumption will allow easier access to critical health care and other benefits for veterans who urgently need it.
On March 2, 2016, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a joint hearing entitled “Legislative Presentation of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.” John Piedrzycki, Commander in Chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, testified at the hearing on the inequity of the exclusions caused by the current presumption policies.
VA has already used its authority to extend the presumption of service connection for veterans exposed later in the relevant period. In a final rule issued on February 24, 2011, VA recognized that section 102 of the Veterans Benefits Act authorized a qualifying period for the connection beginning September 1, 1967 and ending on August 31, 1971. The rule then extended the end date from July 31, 1969 to August 31, 1971. Although this change was important, it did not include the needed step of extending the start date as well. In so doing, it failed to adequately take into account a declassified January 1969 document accepted as credible evidence in Board of Veterans Appeals cases – “Final Report, Vegetation Control Plan CY 68” – that cited use of herbicides in the DMZ for tests that began on October 9, 1967.
In light of this precedent and evidence, we respectfully request that you use your statutory authority to afford the presumption of service connection to veterans with Agent Orange-related diseases who served in or near the Korean DMZ between October 9, 1967 and March 31, 1968. We urge you to implement this change immediately, so these Korean DMZ veterans can begin receiving the benefits that they have heretofore been unjustly denied.
We thank you for your attention to this vital issue, and we look forward to working with you to resolve this matter promptly.