Congress has established a "presumption" of exposure to herbicides, most infamously including "Agent Orange," for veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during the period from January 9, 1962, to May 7, 1975. A presumption is a legal term that means that VA has to assume a fact unless there is evidence against the fact. For Vietnam veterans this means that evidence of actual exposure Agent Orange is not required – those veterans is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange – if they meet the requirements for the presumption.
For claimants, this means that if a veteran can show he or she was in Vietnam during the specific period and currently has a medical condition listed in VA regulations as being caused by Agent Orange which began within the listed time periods, VA must service connect that condition. Conditions that are presumptively service-connected for herbicide exposure include chloracne, Type 2 diabetes (also know as Type II diabetes mellitus or adult-onset diabetes), Hodgkin's disease, Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, B cell leukemia, Parkinson's disease, and ischemic heart disease. Other presumptive conditions are listed, so a Vietnam veteran with a health condition should review the entire list. [link to CFR]
Just who is eligible for the herbicide presumption has been the topic of extensive debate and litigation. As it currently stands, having earned a Vietnam Service Medal is not enough to obtain the presumption. A veteran must show that he or she put "boots on the ground" in Vietnam or have been a "brown water" (inland waters) sailor to qualify. A single layover or shore leave is enough to receive the presumption. In addition, some veterans with service in Korea are also eligible for the presumption. For veterans with service in Thailand the key to claims for exposure are military duties that took the veteran out to and alongside the perimeter of bases where defoliants were acknowledged to have been used. Such duties include dog handling, security, and some maintenance activities.
Many veterans have challenged this definition, especially "blue water" (open ocean) sailors and Air Force ground support personnel who believe that they were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides during service. VA, backed by the courts, will not apply the presumption unless they have evidence of "boots on the ground" from these veterans. Air Force members and reservist who served
On June 19th, 2015 the Federal Register published that Air Force Servicemembers and Air Force Reservists who served during the period of 1969 through 1986 and whose service required that they regularly and repeatedly operate, maintain, or serve onboard C-123 aircraft that was exposed to Agent Orange are now eligible for VA disability compensation for presumptive conditions due to Agent Orange Exposure.
In addition, any veteran who believes that he or she was exposed to a herbicide can file a claim and attempt to show actual herbicide exposure. This can be done by providing evidence of actual exposure, such as photographs showing Agent Orange barrels. In addition, veterans who served in other locations, such as Guam, have occasionally been able to show actual exposure although the government does not officially acknowledge Agent Orange was stored or used in those locations.
A unique aspect of Agent Orange claims is the possible retroactive assignment of effective dates. A series of court orders in the class-action litigation in Nehmer v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs, requires VA in certain cases to make an award effective on the date of the claimant's application or the date of a previously-denied application, even if such date is earlier than the effective date of the regulation establishing the presumption. In other words, the Nehmer case created an exception to the rules for calculating effective dates and requires VA to assign retroactive effective dates for certain awards of disability compensation and DIC.
Another result of the Nehmer case is that if an individual was entitled to retroactive benefits as a result of the court orders but died prior to receiving such payment, VA must pay the entire amount of the retroactive payments to the veteran's estate, regardless of any statutory limits on payment of benefits following a veteran's death. Veterans and surviving spouses, dependent children, and dependent parents of veterans with service in Vietnam who previously filed claims for conditions associated with herbicide exposure should carefully review current VA regulations to determine if they are eligible for retroactive benefits.