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WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman filed legislation last week to help veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides while serving in Thailand.

A Mena man, Bill Rhoades, says he came in contact with toxic defoliants while serving at the Nam Phong Air Base, northeast of Bangkok, in 1973. The 68-year-old blames the exposure for a long list of illnesses he has subsequently battled.

But U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs regulations prevent him and thousands of others like him from having their claims reviewed, lawmakers say.

Veterans Affairs has acknowledged that herbicides were used at seven U.S. bases in Thailand.

Nam Phong, northeast of Bangkok, isn't one of them.

Those who served at one of the seven Thai bases between Feb. 28, 1961, and May 7, 1975, get special consideration when they file claims if they held jobs "on or near the perimeters of Thai military bases during the Vietnam era," department guidelines state.

Rhoades has battled heart disease, diabetes and prostate cancer -- three maladies associated with herbicide exposure -- as well as colon cancer.

When the former Marine Corps staff sergeant sought help from the VA, his claim was denied. "There was no record of herbicides being used at the base I was stationed at," he explained.

In addition, Rhoades hadn't held a perimeter job.

Since then, another veteran has acknowledged using powerful herbicides at the base, Rhoades said.

But VA officials declined to weigh the witness's deposition, Rhoades added.

Frustrated with the situation, Rhoades reached out to Sen. John Boozman and Westerman. Both men agreed to help him.

"I think he made a good case for a group of veterans that are being overlooked," said Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs.

Under Westerman's legislation, HR4843, Rhoades and other veterans would have their cases considered "without regard to where on the base the veteran was located or what military job specialty the veteran performed."

Any veteran who served on a military base in Thailand during that 14-year span would be able to present his case.

Westerman said technicalities shouldn't prevent servicemen from having their cases heard.

"I think most people would agree that if you served your country in the military and were exposed to Agent Orange during that service, you should receive the health care benefits that you were promised to deal with that situation," Westerman said.

Westerman's legislation has attracted bipartisan support: Three Democrats and two Republicans have signed on.

Boozman's bill, introduced in November, also has backing from members of both parties.

"Arbitrarily limiting consideration of a veteran's claim is misguided, especially considering the VA determined that herbicides were used on fenced-in perimeters of military bases in Thailand," the Rogers Republican said at the time. "This will eliminate the unreasonable burden on veterans to prove toxic exposure."

The Veterans of Foreign Wars quickly endorsed the proposal.

"The idea that veterans can only be exposed to Agent Orange if they were on a small portion of a base ignores both science and common sense," said Carlos Fuentes, director of the VFW National Legislative Service. "The fact is that veterans were exposed on all parts of these bases and now suffer from the effects of Agent Orange."

Rhoades said he hopes Congress will fast-track the bill, noting that his decadelong battle with cancer continues.

"It's coming back again and there's not a lot of options left for me," he added.

If he wins, Rhoades stands to have his medical bills covered by the U.S. government; currently he has co-pays. He could also receive financial compensation.

Given the medical bills that he and his wife have, the money would be a blessing, he said.

But financial decisions aren't what drove him to push for legislation, he said.

"The main reason that I did this is because I realized this affects thousands and thousands of veterans," he said.

Metro on 01/22/2018

Print Headline: Bill to aid toxin-exposed veterans

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