A Vietnam veteran
A Vietnam veteran - 
Listen To The Story


Kai Ryssdal: The Vietnam War has been over for 25 years, but its legacy lives on in so many ways. The Veterans Administration said today it plans to expand the list of illnesses that it recognizes as having been caused by exposure to Agent Orange. That's the defoliant used heavily in Vietnam back in the 1960s. Today's decision means that Vietnam vets who suffer from Parkinson's and certain forms of heart disease and Leukemia will be eligible for government benefits. Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports now from Washington.

JOHN DIMSDALE: Some two million U.S. soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and the department estimates as many as 200,000 are likely to seek government-provided medical treatment for the newly approved diseases.

Tammy Duckworth, the assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs, says the department doesn't consider the cost.

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: If we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of the veteran, not the bureaucracy.

Vietnam veterans like Chris Russell of Fayetteville, N.C., praise the new policy. He contracted lung cancer from exposure to Agent Orange in 1970. And he says now, many of his colleagues suffering from Parkinsons, heart disease, and leukemia can afford treatment.

CHRIS RUSSELL: The fact that all these guys that have those types of cancers can now receive benefits, it's just fantastic. I can't salute it enough.

This reflects an improved attitude by the VA towards medical treatment, says John Rowan, the president of Vietnam Veterans of America.

JOHN ROWAN: It's just the nature of modern warfare today that unfortunately toxic exposures may end up doing more damage than bombs and bullets.

Rowan points to another case last week, when the Veterans Affairs Department reversed policy. It will now examine about 1,000 Iraqi vets who may have been exposed to a deadly chemical at a water treatment facility six years ago. The operator, KBR, said its contract with the government did not require environmental monitoring, nor did it provide for protective equipment. Several soldiers have filed lawsuits against KBR. Senate Democrats have urged the VA to monitor their health for service-related illnesses.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.