Guam leaders urged to seek inclusion of civilians in Agent Orange claims program
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Now that the U.S. Congress has finally acknowledged the use of Agent Orange on Guam, the local government must call for the expansion of the disability compensation program to include civilians who may have contracted diseases linked to the herbicide while working at Andersen Air Force Base, according to a local advocate for diseased veterans.
“Agent Orange has entered into a totally new phase on Guam,” said Michael Berman, a Guam attorney who represents individual veterans’ claims against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In August, President Joe Biden signed The Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, also PACT Act, which expands healthcare access and funding for veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during military service.
The new law incorporates the "Lonnie Kilpatrick Central Pacific Relief Act," which was named after the late veteran who led the fight for recognition of Agent Orange use on Guam.
The groundbreaking law thus added Guam to the list of locations eligible for Agent Orange disability compensation, ending decades of the military’s persistent denial that the toxic herbicide was used in defense installations on the island.
The PACT Act provides a presumption of service connection for diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange o veterans who served on Guam or American Samoa between Jan. 9, 1962 and July 31, 1980; or Johnston Atoll or a ship that went to Johnston Atoll between Jan. 1, 1972 and Sept. 30, 1977.
The previous program only covered veterans who were stationed in Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand. “The new PACT Act blows open the door for Guam,” Berman said.
The list of diseases believed linked to Agent Orange has been expanded from 11 to 17.
Berman said he now represents 30 veterans, most of whom are suffering from type 2 diabetes mellitus.
“How about civilians, engineers, teachers and others who were at Andersen Air Force Base standing next to the military guy who was exposed to Agent Orange? Why can’t they apply? What if they were exposed to this evil chemical? What if they have the same diseases?” Berman said.
“Do you have to be in uniform? What if you were walking the pipeline? There’s a lot of people who walked the pipeline back and forth and a lot of these people have already died,” he added.
Berman urged the administration to take the initiative to lobby Washington D.C. for the inclusion of civilians in the Agent Orange disability compensation program.
At the same, he suggested that the government of Guam hire a U.S. law firm specializing in personal injury that will argue equal protection laws for a possible class action.
“Class action and a companion lobbying effort in Congress— it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can have both strategies going at the same time,” Berman said. “That’s a big political activity and I am too small to handle that.”
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Guam's inclusion in the PACT Act was the culmination of the Agent Orange survivors' long battle for recognition of their claims.
Despite countless claims by Guam veterans and previously released photos showing drums of herbicides at AAFB, the Department of Defense denied that Agent Orange was stored and used on island.
Very few Guam veterans were successful with their medical benefit claims as the Department of Veterans Affairs has pretty much taken its cue from DOD. Most have been denied claims of medical treatments of diseases presumed caused by their exposure to Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was a tactical herbicide used by the U.S. military to thin vegetation for military operations during the Vietnam War.
Exposure to Agent Orange has been linked to certain illnesses. The Department of Veterans Affairs, however, dismissed several veterans’ claims in the past “based on insufficient evidence.”
In a 2018 report, the Government Accountability Office said at least one ship carrying Agent Orange stopped on Guam on its way to Vietnam but no record exists showing that any cargo actually landed.