Battling for Benefits: Military Veterans With Cancer Fight for Government-Funded Health Care

For military veterans with cancer, obtaining government-funded health care can constitute a tough fight. 

Military service is an inherently dangerous occupation, especially for service members who find themselves on the front lines of a conflict. Those who sign up to place themselves in harm’s way are well aware of the risk, but they expect it to come from the enemy. In some wars, however, other factors can cause disabilities long after a soldier has returned home.

During the war in Vietnam, the Department of Defense began a program called Operation Ranch Hand to deprive North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers of cover in the dense tropical overgrowth. From 1962 until 1971, Air Force planes sprayed some 19 million gallons of herbicide on the jungles of Southeast Asia, including about 11 million gallons of a toxic cocktail known as Agent Orange.

Used in concentrations 27 times higher than in typical weedkilling applications, the poison had its intended effect, defoliating thousands of acres, but it also exposed thousands of service members. Whether or not the military understood the risk to its personnel is a matter of debate, but there is some evidence that Air Force officials knew of the danger as early as 1967. Shortly after returning from the war, some veterans began to report symptoms such as rashes, numbness and nausea. Others had children with rare birth defects, while still others developed cancer. Some veterans suspected Agent Orange was the cause, and began a long fight to prove it.

In the meantime, those affected, and others facing service-related illnesses in the years since, began a long relationship with doctors and, in many cases, the Veterans Health Administration – a dynamic that has brought them both support and challenges.


Peter Sills, author of "Toxic War: The Story of Agent Orange," explains that it wasn’t the herbicides in the mix that were deadly, it was the dioxin that was inadvertently created in the manufacturing process. “Every time you create a chemical process with chlorine and a carbon-based compound, you wind up with some kind of dioxin,” he says. “And the process of making Agent Orange resulted in the most toxic form, known as 2,3,7,8-TCDD.”

Among the deadliest chemicals known to science, dioxins can cause health problems at very low doses, and are fat-soluble, so they accumulate in human tissue over time. “When sprayed from aircraft as it was in Vietnam, it gets atomized into tiny droplets that can spread for miles,” says Sills. “It’s been known to travel 25 or 30 miles, and you’d never know you’d been exposed.”

Karl Pritchard was serving in a Navy electronic countermeasures squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in 1962, interdicting Chinese aircraft attempting to bring supplies to the North Vietnamese. “We were living in tents at the end of the runway, waiting for the call to scramble,” he remembers. Unknown to him, Operation Ranch Hand had begun at the base in January and was now in full swing. “Nobody told us what they were using or where they were using it,” says Pritchard.

In late 2013 he began having back pain and blood in his urine, which his doctor attributed to kidney stones. A CT scan disproved that diagnosis; instead, he learned he had aggressive bladder cancer.

Some of the several million men and women who served in Middle East conflicts are experiencing their own cancer challenges. Instead of Agent Orange, many believe it’s due to their exposure to war-specific environmental hazards during their tours of duty. Thomas Berger, executive director of The Veterans Health Council, a nonprofit aimed at educating veterans about health issues and care, says that “those who were downwind when we blew up Saddam’s ammo stores, which contained sarin gas and other nasty stuff,” are at particular risk of developing health problems. Burn pits and depleted uranium ammunition were additional disease vectors for these American soldiers, he says.

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