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Mena Arkansas News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

Fighting for Vets

Bills introduced by local congressmen to combat injustice

Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the Vietnam War have left marks on the health of the nation’s veterans. However, William (Bill) Rhodes, a local veteran, knows first hand how difficult it can be to receive assistance after being exposed if a service record does not reflect specific information.

Legislation has been attempted to correct this for veterans, and after failed attempts to pass laws, bills have been introduced in the house and senate by Sen. Bruce Westerman and Rep. John Boozman.

Senator Boozman introduced an initial version of the bill, S. 2105, in 2017 with Rep. Westerman filing a companion version in early 2018 (HR 4843). This bill granted the extension of VA benefits to Vietnam-era veterans serving in Thailand and were presumed exposed to herbicides. 

According to Boozman’s office, the biggest obstacle to passing the Thailand exposure language is the estimated cost of ~$1.1-1.5B. However, there is an increasing show of support for this bill. Boozman had 79 other members cosponsor in the House last year (HR 2201) and he is optimistic for this language to be included in a future toxic exposure package. 

While cost concerns are important, and leaders are working to lower that score, Boozman said caring for veterans is a priority.

“Our United States veterans were promised upon their retirement from service that they would be provided benefits and care for life, but they have often been denied benefits despite ample evidence of a connection between their time in service and their health status,” said Congressman Westerman. “It is our responsibility to make good on our word. Those who served during the Vietnam War in Vietnam and Thailand deserve care for exposure to Agent Orange, which they endured in service to our nation. These bills set a precedent for all veterans that their country has their backs and will keep its promises.”

Rhodes has been working relentlessly, despite several medial issues that may have been caused by exposure during his service in Thailand.

“This year we have litigation against VA in US district courts,” Rhodes said. “We expect a decision from the court sometimes next year. Hopefully this will cause congress to be mindful of the situation.”

Despite the failing bill from years past, Rhodes is optimistic the bills now have the support needed to be passed into law.

“This time there are many more cosponsors on the bills and that may be the thing we need to bring attention to this and get it passed into law,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes has spent years attempting to tend to his medical issues- researching, following paper trails and now finally cutting red tape.

“I knew as I learned more about my own situation that there were more like me,” Rhodes said. “It has been a long journey, but hopefully the leg work we have done to change the law will help someone else.”

Rhodes, along with the efforts of fellow veterans caught in a legislative loophole, brought the issue to legislators.

While the Department of Veteran’s Affairs does cover medical expense and treat veterans exposed to Agent Orange, it only covers veterans who served in certain locations. 

If the current bill passes, it would amend the law to protect service men and women who were in Thailand during the Vietnam War-era and exposed to hazardous herbicides.

“I greatly appreciate Bill Rhodes’ efforts to raise awareness of the injustice he has faced personally,” Boozman said. “If it were not for his tireless advocacy, many would not even be aware that some veterans have been, and continue to be, denied a basic opportunity to prove their eligibility for service-related benefits. I will continue working with Mr. Rhodes to right this wrong.

“Veterans who honorably served during the Vietnam War-era in Thailand to this day are paying a high price as a result of having been carelessly hindered by the limitations on the presumption of toxic exposure to Agent Orange, but they aren’t forgotten. I’m grateful for Congressman Westerman’s leadership in the House of Representatives to ensure these veterans get the benefits they’ve earned,” said Boozman, a senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

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. 

 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 percent of those claims were approved for additional benefits.

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