Four hundred local vets battling Agent Orange effects

Clarion County Veterans Affairs Director Judy Zerbe holds her manual on conditions related to Agent Orange.

CLARION - When Knox-area resident Scott Bell asked the members of the Clarion County Board of Commissioners if they would support a memorial bench for the victims of Agent Orange he touched on a problem facing more than 400 county residents.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Agent Orange was a tactical herbicide used by the U.S. military for control of vegetation.

It was named for the orange band around the storage barrel. The military sprayed Agent Orange and other tactical herbicides during the Vietnam War.

Veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange include military personnel who served in different locations, including Vietnam, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, on Thai Air Force bases, at other locations, and who flew on or worked on C-123Aircraft.

For Clarion County Director of Veterans Affairs Judy Zerbe these are more than just numbers and places. Of the 1,600 cases in her office, roughly 400 are Agent Orange claims.

"I love the job but it can really work on you," she said. "When the guys find out they had been exposed to Agent Orange they will ask ‘why did they do this to us'? They went and did what was asked of them and now they are all dying."

Zerbe added, "I have guys who I have been dealing with since I started here 27 years ago. I have had them go through Type II diabetes to heart problems and then they eventually end up with cancer. You get to know them and their wives. It is like losing friends."

It was not until 1991 that the federal Veterans Administration recognized Agent Orange as a cause for many service-related conditions.

Prior to 1991 Zerbe had clients with conditions they suspected were service-related.

"They thought that it might be related to their service because these problems did not run in their families. There was some evidence that the chemicals in Agent Orange did cause cancer," she said. "Many of the claims were denied because the vet was a smoker."

Filing a claim with the VA takes time.

"When a claim is slow, they will ask 'what are they doing? Waiting for me to die?' relates Zerbe. "I get that a lot. There is nothing I can do to hurry the claim along."

For some vets it is too late but that does not mean that is the end of VA benefits.

"A considerable number of those claims are D.I.C. (Death or Injury Claims) because the veteran died from service connected conditions related to Agent Orange," said Zerbe. "It is a tragedy that many vets died before the VA recognized Agent Orange but, if we have documentation, the widow can still go back and file for benefits."

The benefit is more than $1,300 per month.

Zerbe said she had a widow whose husband was a Marine and died in 1988.

"Three years ago a condition was added that is now service-related for Agent Orange. We filed a claim two years ago and she is now getting a monthly benefit," Zerbe said.

That is not the case for other vets.

"Doctors and hospitals only keep records for seven years so, unless the family has those records, we cannot file for benefits," said Zerbe. "Today if a vet dies from COVID, I will call the funeral home and ask them to list Agent Orange as a contributing factor to the death if there is documentation.

"At that point we file a claim for the widow and she can receive $1,357 a month for life. That also qualifies them for VA medical benefits. That is a fantastic program."

Zerbe said she scans the obituary column every day to see if one of her veterans appears.

"If I know they were receiving benefits, I immediately call the funeral home and make sure that they list Agent Orange as a contributing factor," she said.

The military has stopped using Agent Orange but the legacy of the chemicals lingers.

"C-123 airplanes were given to the Air Force Reserve units, including the one in Pittsburgh," explained Zerbe. "These were the planes used to spread Agent Orange. They found traces of the chemical in the planes decades after they were flown in Vietnam."

Zerbe had one case resulting from the use of the old airplanes but he moved before the claim was settled.

"He was a mechanic," she said. "I don't know if he ever got his benefits."

The window for claims was expanded in 2020 to include the "Blue Water Navy" (ships that were in deep water).

"Someone determined that the wind blew Agent Orange right over the ships that were within 12 miles of the Vietnam coast," Zerbe said.

Zerbe believes the VA has learned from the Agent Orange debacle and is recognizing conditions stemming from other conflicts.

"From the Persian Gulf War you have depleted uranium, the oil well fires and from Iraq and Afghanistan you have effects from particle intrusion (sand and dust). It is now being treated by the VA," Zerbe said. "On top of that you had the Camp Lejeune water problem. I had one case where a former Marine was at Camp Lejeune and also in Vietnam."

VA service is improving in at least one area.

"When I do send in a DIC claim they are getting those out quickly. I am proud of the VA for that," Zerbe said.

And that memorial bench?

"I have been asking around and I think there would be support for this," said Bell. "I have thought about this for a long time."

There would be support from at least 400 Clarion County residents, the veterans who have experienced the effects of Agent Orange personally.

For additional information contact Zerbe at the Clarion County Office of Veterans Affairs.

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