A federal appeals court ruled that the Department of Veterans Affairs must pay retroactive disability payments to thousands of Vietnam vets.
The payments must date to when veterans initially applied for benefits under a law that allowed them to do so beginning Sept. 25, 1985.
Because of a complicated rule-making procedure, the government said the cancer victims could not receive benefits until Nov. 7, 1996, if they filed a claim after Jan. 4, 1994.
The appeals court nullified that government interpretation, which affects an estimated 1,200 veterans, said Barton F. Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.
Also undermined by the ruling was the government's position that veterans suffering from adult onset diabetes could not get benefits until July 9, 2001, if they filed a claim between Jan. 4, 1994, and July 9, 2001, Stichman said.
"All I can tell you is for the last 20 years the VA has dragged its feet on the Agent Orange issue. They try every way they can to come up with theories to why they shouldn't give benefits," said Stichman, who filed suit in 1986.
Phil Budahn, a Veterans Affairs spokesman, said the government had not seen the decision and could not immediately comment.
Between 1962 and 1971, the United States sprayed 19 million gallons of herbicides over southern Vietnam to destroy jungle cover for communist troops. About 55 percent of that was Agent Orange.
Over the years, the government has added a host of diseases associated with Agent Orange entitling veterans to disability benefits. Those include several cancers, including cancer to the lung, larynx and trachea. Last year, the government recognized adult onset diabetes.
The ruling puts prostate cancer and adult onset diabetes in line with the other diseases acknowledged by the government to have links to Agent Orange, meaning disability benefits would be paid from when a claim was first filed.
For many veterans, the government has paid retroactive benefits while litigation continued. The government reserved the right to take back the benefits if it won the lawsuit.
Clifford Nash, a Vietnam veteran with prostate cancer, said the court decision will allow him to keep about $11,000 in benefits that he may have had to return had the court ruled the other way.
"I've heard some veterans say we fought there and now we got to fight for what's right and ours," said the 71-year-old Nash, of West Enfield, Maine. "Everything seems to be taking a turn for the better."
By David Kravets