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Vets who were exposed to chemicals in the Panama Canal Zone want to be included in the PACT Act

Steven Price served in the Army in the Panama Canal Zone. He says he was exposed to Agent Orange, DDT, and other toxins. He later developed chronic B-cell leukemia.
Courtesy Steven Price
Steven Price served in the Army in the Panama Canal Zone. He says he was exposed to Agent Orange, DDT, and other toxins. He later developed chronic B-cell leukemia.

People who served in the Canal Zone were left out of a law that made it easier to get care and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Steven Price joined the Army in the 1980s, around the time when the Reagan administration made combating leftist forces in Central America a priority.

Price, who trained as a radio operator, remembers the U.S. military’s relentless war on mosquitoes and foliage in the region. From his vantage point atop some of the highest mountains in Panama, he witnessed an unusual practice.

"A jet or a helicopter would fly by and blow off the top of the hill — literally blow the grass off. Inside the artillery round was Agent Orange," Price said.

Those flattened, defoliated areas would later serve as landing zones. Price says U.S. authorities also used insecticides to help control the spread of malaria. He remembers trucks spraying a solution that he believes was DDT mixed with diesel oil.

"That mist would lay at night in the air and kill the mosquitoes," he said. "But when you’d get up in the morning, you’d still smell that scent of kerosene, DDT."

Decades later, Price was diagnosed with chronic B-cell leukemia after he complained of allergies. When a VA doctor told him that the cancer could only have been caused by toxic exposure, Price immediately thought back to Panama.

"I knew it right away," he said. "There was no other place in my mind where I would've been exposed."

Reports have documented the military’s use of commercial herbicides containing dioxin in the Panama Canal Zone, as well as the passage of herbicides through the canal itself.

A 2022 law called the PACT Act made it easier for most veterans to get care and benefits if they were exposed to toxins. The VA now assumes that veterans who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and post-9/11 were exposed. If they get sick with certain conditions, they’re covered as long as they can show proof of service.

Panama Canal Zone veterans were not explicitly named in the PACT Act. But the law gave the VA the ability to pinpoint other groups of veterans in need of benefits. The VA has proposed expanding the list of places where it will assume veterans were exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides. It would include parts of Canada and India, but not Panama.

Instead of getting coverage automatically, Panama Canal Zone veterans have to go through a lengthy process to prove that their health problems are related to toxic exposure.

Democratic member of Congress Joaquin Castro of Texas said his office is aware of many such veterans who have struggled to get their VA claims approved.

"As you can imagine, it's very frustrating for folks when they keep coming back to the VA and letting them know about these health problems — how they believe it's connected to their service — but still haven't been able to get any relief," he said.

In a statement, VA officials said they still need more information from the military about what kinds of herbicides it might have used in Panama.

"Currently, VA recognizes presumption for herbicide (Agent Orange or others) exposure in locations explicitly defined in the PACT Act and regulation," the statement said. "VA continues to review all available evidence with DoD. If the DoD informs VA that there is sufficient evidence that Agent Orange or tactical herbicides were ever used, transported, tested or stored in Panama, that information would be added to the DoD list."

According to the Government Accountability Office, the VA and Department of Defense have had trouble communicating about how and where the military dispersed herbicides around the world.

Castro argues that there are enough reports of exposure from Panama that the VA should follow up now.

"I think it may be a matter of cost, the fact that they've not gone back and done the research to verify these reports," he said. "But so much anecdotal evidence by veterans who served there has made it clear that there was herbicide use. People shouldn't have to fight with the VA to get covered for things like cancer."

Castro has introduced legislation that would establish a presumption of service connection for more than a dozen illnesses and conditions associated with exposure to herbicide in the Panama Canal Zone between 1958 and 1999. He and other members of Congress also sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough urging the VA to expand benefits and services for veterans who were sickened after toxic exposures in the region.

The VA is encouraging veterans who think they may have been affected by herbicide use to file claims and approach the agency for care. VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said each case will be reviewed individually.

"When a veteran applies for care, VA will use all available information to determine if veterans are eligible on any basis," he said.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

Military and Veterans Reporter - Texas Public Radio
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