Tracking Agent Orange

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seal. Veterans.
The government is offering to examine Cold War American troops who served in Korea three decades ago for possible exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange.

In a little-publicized initiative, the Veterans Affairs Department expanded a program previously offered to Vietnam War veterans to include people who served in Korea in 1968-69.

The rule change follows by a year the Pentagon's disclosure that South Korean troops sprayed Agent Orange, which contained the toxic herbicide dioxin, during that time along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

The decision to give vets free Agent Orange Registry exams, for diseases and medical conditions associated with exposure to the herbicide, is set out in a directive issued Sept. 5 and posted on the department's World Wide Web site.

Agent Orange and other similar herbicides were used during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover by defoliating broad sections of jungle mainly to facilitate pursuit of infiltrators and supplies moving into South Vietnam from the north. After it appeared probable that the defoliant caused numerous serious illnesses and birth defects, the VA set up the Agent Orange Registry in 1978, three years after the war ended, for U.S. veterans with in-country Vietnam War military service. More than 300,000 veterans have participated so far.

"Now that we understand that it was sprayed there," said VA spokesman Jim Benson, "we can say, `If you were in Korea, you may be exposed, and we would like you to come in.' "

The Defense Department has always known it was used along the Korean DMZ, but it wasn't until last December that the information was publicly known.

Following news reports quoting unclassified U.S. documents about the usage, the Pentagon and South Korea's government admitted that the chemical and two others were used in 1968-69 to kill dense foliage that North Korean infiltrators used for cover heading south.

Around 50,000 South Korean soldiers did the spraying by hand.

"However, it is plausible that U.S. service members in the area near spraying operations may have been exposed," the directive said, adding that as many as 80,000 troops served in the country during the two years. A smaller number would have been near the DMZ.

The new directive does not entitle veterans to compensation for diseases, offering mainly physical examinations and counseling. Specifically, it opens to Korean veterans registration on the registry's computerized index of all examinations taken by Vietnam vets who worried they had illnesses caused by exposure to the chemical.

Like Vietnam vets in the registry, the Korea-based veterans will be tracked in Agent Orange research and get newsletters and other information that Vietnam vets get, Benson said.

A law passed a decade ago assumes exposure for any American who served in Vietnam during a certain period. The VA has compensated veterans wh have some forms of cancer and a limited number of other diseases presumed, although not proven, to have been caused by the exposure.

After Korean vets register and are examined, the government would have to take further action to add their names to the list of people eligible for compensation, Benson said.

Under the law governing Agent Orange, Vietnam veterans need not prove a direct causal relationship to receive service-based compensation for certain diseases. The diseases currently on the list include Hodgkin's disease, multiple melanoma, respiratory cancers, soft-tissue sarcoma and prostate cancer. Veterans' children with spinal bifida, a congenital birth defect of the spine, are also eligible for benefits and health care.

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