STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Decades after the end of the Vietnam War, many veterans are still seeking compensation for diseases that they believe are related to Agent Orange. The U.S. used that herbicide to burn off the jungle that enemy fighters used for cover.
The human cost and the financial cost of Agent Orange is increasing. The Department of Veterans Affairs recently expanded the number of diseases it will cover as related to the war. Rose Hoban reports from North Carolina Public Radio.
ROSE HOBAN: Vietnam veteran Don Wade used to spend his free time building electronics equipment.�The results of his hobby line the walls of the den of his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.�
Mr. DON WADE (Vietnam veteran): These speakers, I completely gutted them, and my stereo equipment, I've rebuilt and upgraded all the capacitors.
HOBAN: But about a decade ago, Wade, who still looks fit and trim at 61, noticed he had more trouble soldering the tiny electronics.�His hand had developed a minor tremor. And its only gotten worse.
Mr. WADE: If I take my medication Im good for about a half hour. My rigidity is, you know, its like a glove on your hand.�And when I walk, it's like somebody walking in three feet of water or two feet of sand. That's what it feels like.�
HOBAN: Wade was diagnosed with Parkinsons disease in 2003.�Hes being treated at the VA Hospital in Durham and hes happy with the care. But hes never been happy that the VA denied his claim that Parkinsons resulted from Agent Orange exposure while he was a Marine in Vietnam.
WADE: Basically our job was to unload stuff. One of the items was the 55 gallon drums of Agent Orange. At that time I had no inclination that what was being spilled was, of some degree, toxic.
HOBAN: So Wade welcomed the VAs announcement it would begin approving compensation claims for Parkinsons disease, ischemic heart disease and a form of leukemia. Under an existing 1991 federal law, the VA already compensates for treatment for a number of diseases, including type-two diabetes. Wade says the hospital was abuzz with the news.
WADE: There were about five people that came up, did you hear about the VA?� You know, that they announced that they made a decision to support the three new diseases.
HOBAN: Wade knows he came into contact with Agent Orange, a defoliant that includes several kinds of dioxins.�For many vets, the connection isnt as clear.
Ms. TRUDE BENNETT (University of North Carolina): There is no possibility of proving, on an individual basis, what the exposure was.�
HOBAN: Trude Bennett is a public health researcher at the University of North Carolina who studies dioxin exposure.
Ms. BENNETT: Even if you could measure the body burden of the chemicals in someone's body now, it would have dissipated from the time of the original exposure. So there is also no way, to prove with absolute certainty, a causal effect between the exposure and the medical condition.
HOBAN: The VA estimates the tab for treating these newly added diseases at about $40 Billion over the next decade.�
The new VA rules need congressional approval.�But some members of Congress have been balking at the price and the spiraling costs of disability claims stemming from Agent Orange, including Virginia Senator Jim Webb, himself a Vietnam veteran.�But many vets and their advocates see paying for their health care as part of the cost of war.�
Congress has until the end of October to decide whether the new rules will stand and whether veteran Don Wade and thousands of others will have their treatment covered by the VA.
For NPR news, Im Rose Hoban in Durham, North Carolina.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.