Arkansas veteran, lawmakers continue fight to fix Agent Orange loophole

Local News

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A former Marine from Mena is working with lawmakers in Washington on legislation that would allow veterans who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War to qualify for benefits due to Agent Orange exposure.

Sen. John Boozman and Congressman Bruce Westerman recently reintroduced legislation that would give these veterans the opportunity to prove toxic exposure.

“It’s been a very slow process that can get on your nerves if you let it,” Bill Rhodes said.

Rhodes has been fighting for eight years to qualify for VA benefits. He served at Nam Phong, commonly referred to as the Rose Garden, which was a nearly defunct Royal Thai air strip that the U.S. military revamped and renovated. 

According to Veterans’ Affairs, it is not one of the bases recognized as having herbicide exposure.

“When you’re retired and on a fixed income, money, of course, is important,” Rhodes said. “But it will also give me 100 percent, full coverage on health insurance and medications.” 

The 70 year old served in his 20s and was diagnosed with diabetes in his 50s, followed by prostate cancer and heart disease. It wasn’t until his 60s that he discovered the three diseases are on a list of about a dozen conditions considered part of the effects of herbicide exposure.

“This particular dioxin is known in the scientific world as the most deadly chemical known to man,” Rhodes said. 

That’s what the veteran said he and hundreds of thousands of others are up against. After a recent claim denial, his burden feels even heavier this Memorial Day.

“It’s kind of different,” Rhodes said, starting to choke up. “There’s no telling how many veterans served in Thailand that have already died from this.”

Last September, Rhodes traveled to Washington to meet with Sen. Boozman, Congressman Westerman and staff members of both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees.

Rhodes is one of the main reasons why Sen. Boozman and Congressman Westerman introduced the bill to begin with. He first shared his story with KARK about two years ago regarding his battle for benefits, along with four other veterans from across the country. 

A similar bill, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, would extend Agent Orange benefits to veterans who were serving on ships off of the coast of Vietnam.

Earlier this month, the legislation unanimously passed for the second time out of the House. It died in the Senate last year over questions about whether these veterans were actually exposed and about the cost of covering them. 

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