Weekly Columns

The convenience of email has changed the manner in which Americans communicate with their elected officials. These days, there are fewer and fewer letters delivered to the Capitol by the U.S. Postal Service. So, when a stack of orange envelopes arrived in my Washington, D.C. office in mid-September it caught my attention. That was the idea behind a campaign initiated by Mena, Arkansas veteran Bill Rhodes and his fellow veterans who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War. 

After developing illnesses linked to herbicide exposure during his service in Thailand, Rhodes filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). His claim was denied because the location he served in is not recognized as having been treated with herbicides.  

The VA currently awards service-connected benefits for exposure to Agent Orange to veterans whose duties placed them on or near the perimeters of Thai military bases from February 28, 1961 to May 7, 1975. This restriction arbitrarily disqualifies veterans who may otherwise be able to prove their exposure, regardless of their assigned duties during their time stationed in Thailand. For veterans like Rhodes who served in Nam Phong, Thailand, this is a policy they are calling on Congress to change. 

That’s why I introduced legislation to eliminate existing barriers to benefits for veterans who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War. These veterans have been left behind by the current limitations on the presumption of toxic exposure to Agent Orange. Restricting service-connected benefits for our men and women assigned to certain locations and career fields in Thailand during their military service is undermining the commitment we made to veterans. 

While there is a proposed legislative fix, Rhodes and his fellow veterans who served in Thailand and suffer from Agent Orange-related illnesses are continuing to press Congress to take action to update the presumption policy through the orange envelope letter-writing campaign.  

To reinforce their message, I brought the letters and orange envelopes to a recent Senate VA Committee hearing on toxic exposure. We heard from VA officials about the agency’s decision-making process when determining benefit eligibility for veterans whose illnesses were caused by exposure to toxic hazards while on active duty. I reminded my colleagues of the legislation to help these veterans and encouraged them to keep these veterans and their families in mind as we improve veteran benefits policies. 

At the hearing, I pressed VA officials on the department’s policy of limiting benefits for Thailand service as well as the process for implementing changes, and I encouraged them to revise the rule. VA representatives said the Department of Defense has provided updated information about Agent Orange use in new areas. The VA is looking at that data now to determine if changes should be made. 

Sometimes it takes an act of Congress to modernize benefits like in the case with the Blue Water Navy legislation. This legislation expands benefits to veterans who served aboard ships off the coast of Vietnam. In other cases, the VA gets new information about exposure to toxins or side effects that make veterans eligible for additional benefits. I am hopeful that we can build on this momentum to ensure all of our veterans who were called to serve get the care they have earned.