Senate bill on burn pits, Agent Orange could help local veterans

Local men, including one who died in 2021, pushed for expansion of care for veterans who were harmed

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Thursday that would extend care more readily to veterans harmed by exposure to Agent Orange and toxic burn pits.

With the bill one step closer to becoming law, the hope of some Vietnam War-era veterans who served in Thailand is that the federal government will extend to them a presumption that their illnesses were caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used to kill vegetation along fence lines on U.S. military installations in Thailand.

“Great news for us veterans,” said Xenia resident Paul Skinner, who served in Thailand while in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

The Senate approved the bill, which is called the Honoring Our PACT Act, or H.R. 3967, 84-14.

As some Thailand veterans see it, the Veterans Affairs system has placed an undue burden of proof on them to demonstrate they were harmed by Agent Orange, in some cases asking for photographs or other evidence of physical proximity to containers of the herbicide.

It has not been a burden shared by veterans who served in Vietnam or in the Navy.

“If you set foot on a land mass (in Vietnam), you’re entitled to a presumption” that you have been exposed to herbicides, Rhode Island attorney Robert Chisholm told the Dayton Daily News last year.

Veterans in Thailand enjoyed no such presumption — at least, not yet.

“I wish Bob was still living to see this. He put his last dying breath into this fight,” Skinner said Thursday, referring to friend and fellow Thailand veteran Robert McHenry.

Centerville resident McHenry died in July 2021 at the age of 74. McHenry worked for years to correct what he argued was an error in an Air Force Historical Research Agency memo, which held there was no evidence of tactical herbicides having been used at American bases in Thailand.

The memo said that although use of commercial herbicides on bases in Thailand had been documented, Air Force archivists had found no mention of the transportation, payment for or use of any tactical herbicide (such as Agent Orange) to control vegetation on Air Force or military installations in Thailand.

McHenry long contended this was mistaken, writing detailed letters to politicians and even writing and publishing books on the subject.

“Bob has been fighting this letter since it came out,” Skinner said last year.

“They used that letter (the Air Force historical memo) repeatedly to deny (veterans’) claims,” Mary Flodder, McHenry’s widow, said in an interview last year.

Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman voted to support the bill. A previous version of the bill passed the House 256-174 in March, when U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, was recorded as voting against the measure.

Turner’s office on Friday said the congressman has co-sponsored similar, earlier legislation in the House. His office said he chose not to support the PACT Act because he believes it would worsen an existing VA backlog, causing further delays for veterans seeking care.

“Providing health care and benefits for veterans who suffer from toxic exposure is a cost of going to war,” Brown said in a statement Thursday evening. “If you were exposed to toxins while serving our country, you deserve the benefits you earned, period. No exceptions. Today, the Senate finally recognized that and soon it will be the law of the land.”

The next step for the bill: A return to the House for a vote on the amended version there.

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