BY MELANIE WADE –
A lifetime resident of Mena is actively advocating for a change in legislation to benefit certain veterans of the Vietnam War claim benefits that others receive for the same ailments; however, due to their location during the war, some have been denied. William Rhodes is one such veteran and his current life mission is to make sure all veterans are able to receive benefits from exposure to chemicals while enlisted in the U.S. military during the long conflict.
Rhodes was stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War, making his trek in 1973. He served in the aviation side of the United States Marine Corps. “I was on the draft and they called me in for a physical and testing. The Marines guaranteed me aviation so I decided if I was going to have to go, I wanted to get the best training I could so, I joined the Marines,” recalled Rhodes.
During his service time in Thailand, Rhodes, along with many other servicemen, were exposed to many chemicals and herbicides, with some being exposed to ‘Agent Orange,’ which is widely known for its use by the U.S. military as part of its ‘herbicidal warfare’ program. The mixture is made of equal parts of two herbicides, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. In addition to its damaging environmental effects, the chemical has caused major health problems for many individuals who were exposed.
Up to four million people in Vietnam were exposed to agent organge, with around one million now suffering serious health issues. The chemical is capable of damaging genes, resulting in deformities among the offspring of exposed victims. There are also documented cases of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and various kinds of cancer in exposed veterans. It also caused enormous environmental damage in Vietnam, eroding tree cover and seedling forest stock and making reforestation difficult in numerous areas.
For those veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, benefits are given, including medical benefits. However, for those in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, it has been another battle to get what many feel they deserve just as much as those in Vietnam. VA currently awards service-connected benefits for exposure to toxic chemicals 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.
For more than 20,000 conditions determined by the VA to be eligible for service-connected exposure to toxic chemicals in Fiscal Year 2016, 12,025 claims were filed by veterans who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War era. Only 14% of those claims were approved for additional benefits.
When Rhodes himself began exhibiting symptoms a few years ago, he applied for benefits but was disqualified quickly. That’s when Rhodes said he, “began to research, collect documents, contacted other veterans, got a multitude of official government documents, and statements from other veterans stationed there,” he explained. “I got to reading the law and the regulations and realized it affected all of us.” He began his research in 2015 and eventually gained enough information that he convinced U.S. Senator John Boozman’s office to introduce legislation that includes all the veterans, not just those stationed in Vietnam. Afterall, the soldiers were all there for the same purpose, the war, no matter where they were stationed.
“I wrote the first letter to Congress in April of 2015. As of November 8th, legislation was introduced.”
Although many veterans have been receiving the benefits due to their exposure for decades, Rhodes explained that the new legislation, is really just a change in the ‘accepted locations’ in the original law. But now, it has to go through the entire process, as if the legislation were just beginning. “It’s got to go through the Veteran’s committee, senate, budget office, and other possible committees… if it gets approved through committees, it will go to the floor for a vote and then to House of Representatives.” Rhodes said that Congressman Westerman is prepared to introduce the bill as well into the House.
Senator Boozman said, ““We made a commitment to our veterans, but current VA policy restricting service-connected benefits for our men and women who served in certain locations and career fields in Thailand during their military service is undermining that commitment. Arbitrarily limiting consideration of a veteran’s claim is misguided, especially considering the VA determined that herbicides were used on fenced-in perimeters of military bases in Thailand. This will eliminate the unreasonable burden on veterans to prove toxic exposure.”
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) have also weighed in on the subject. “The VFW greatly appreciates the support from Senators Boozman and Donnelly on this important issue. The idea that veterans can only be exposed to Agent Orange if they were on a small portion of a base ignores both science and common sense. The fact is that veterans were exposed on all parts of these bases and now suffer from the effects of Agent Orange. We look forward to the passage of this important legislation that will provide long overdue recognition and care that these veterans deserve,” said Carlos Fuentes, Director, VFW National Legislative Service.
“There is a very large group of veterans working with me and others on this. One other has started keeping track of all the people that contact their senators… to this day, they have contacted 80+ senators in 32 states since the 10th of November,” Rhodes said as he smiled, knowing that there are many that could benefit from the process.
If you or someone you know would like more information, there are several Facebook pages for those who are seeking benefits. They include: Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia Veterans FB Group; Veterans of Namphong 1972-1973; Agent Orange in Thailand; Thailand Veterans Herbicide Exposed; USARSUPTHAI FB Association. There you’ll find others affected, and advice on how to research and apply for benefits.
“One person can still make a difference,” Rhodes said. “It’s a lot of hard work but, somebody locally here with a high school education has managed to get something done.”