WASHINGTON -- Veterans who patrolled the waters off Vietnam can claim disability benefits for exposure to Agent Orange under an appeals court ruling that opens the door for thousands of service members to seek medical coverage.
The ruling was handed down by the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in the case of a former sailor who served on an ammunition ship during the Vietnam War but never stepped foot on land during that period .
The court's order, issued Wednesday, reverses the Department of Veterans Affairs' denial of benefits for Jonathan L. Haas, who blamed his diabetes, nerve damage, and loss of eyesight on exposure to Agent Orange.
Haas argued that clouds of the toxic defoliate, which the United States sprayed on Vietnamese jungles, drifted out to sea, engulfing his ship and landing on his skin.
Veterans officials said that to qualify for coverage, Haas was required to have come ashore.
The three-judge panel said regulations governing the benefits were unclear. The court said it made no sense for veterans who patrolled Vietnam's inland waterways and those simply passing through the country to receive medical coverage while those serving at sea do not.
``Veterans serving on vessels in close proximity to land would have the same risk of exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange as veterans serving on adjacent land, or an even greater risk than that borne by those veterans who may have visited and set foot on the land of the Republic of Vietnam only briefly," Judge William A. Moorman wrote.
The Veterans Affairs Department said yesterday that it was reviewing the opinion and was not sure how many veterans would be affected.
Most Vietnam combat veterans receive some medical benefits, but if their illnesses are related to their service, they could receive full coverage, and their families might be eligible for benefits.