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Vietnam War Veterans Demand Pay-out for Agent Orange Disaster

Agent Orange was used by the USA during the Vietnam War. The war was a long, costly, and divisive conflict. Although the United States of America was the principal ally of South Vietnam, New Zealand troops also fought. On the other hand, Russia, China, and other communist allies supported North Vietnam.

The war lasted for two decades. As a result, millions of soldiers and civilians lost their lives. The war ended on 30th April 1975, but its aftereffects are still visible today.

  • The United States used Agent Orange – a toxic jungle defoliant – during its involvement in the Vietnam War (1955-1975).
  • Agent Orange causes type-2 diabetes, prostate cancer, and hypertension.
  • In 2006, Royal New Zealand RSA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Crown to compensate the veterans.
  • As per the agreement, affectees are eligible for $40,000.
  • In 2008, the Crown formally apologized to Vietnam veterans for the exposure.
American helicopter spraying Agent Orange.
U.S. Army Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange over agricultural land during the Vietnam War in its herbicidal campaign.

Agent Orange and The Memorandum of Understanding (2006)

The United States used a so-called jungle defoliant – Agent Orange – in the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. The herbicide was manufactured using equal parts of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Agent Orange worked effectively, destroying approximately 31,000 km2 of the Vietnamese jungle. One of the advantages of this destructive weapon was that it prevented the North Vietnamese from using the jungle for cover and for guerrilla warfare. The other was more sinister; to starve the population.

However, the jungle was not the only target in the cross-hair. the herbicide also contained traces of dioxin, which was was deadly for wildlife and humans alike.

Exposure to Agent Orange
U.S. Army operations in Vietnam: Riverbank defoliation without protective clothing.

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Dioxin contamination caused long-term health issues. Cancer, neurological problems, and even congenital disabilities became prevalent in the coming generations. Unsurprisingly, the use of Agent Orange resulted in numerous lawsuits.

New Zealand’s Vietnam war veterans and the Crown signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2006. The Government agreed to compensate the veterans affected by the deadly chemical. The Crown paid $40,000 to the people who suffered the symptoms of Agent Orange.

The Cabinet Social Wellbeing Committee has displayed genuine interest in the cause. Accordingly, the Cabinet mentioned in November 2021:

 “The Crown has no discretion or ability to decline or to refuse to make an ex-gratia payment. The Crown is liable to pay if a veteran meets the prescribed condition mentioned in the MoU.”

Map of Agent Orange use.
Map showing locations of U.S. Army aerial herbicide spray missions in South Vietnam taking place from 1965 to 1971 by helicopters and aircraft

An Unexpected Pay-out

In 2021, two new symptoms – hypertension and increased blood pressure – were added to the symptoms list. The Veterans Affairs Department held records of 771 Vietnam veterans with hypertension. Out of which, 738 had not been reimbursed.

The addition meant that more veterans were now eligible for the pay-out.

Up until the new symptoms were added, the government had compensated only 97 veterans (paying $3.8 million) since 2006. However, it was a completely different situation now.

In 2021, the Government allocated $29.52 million to pay the affected. However, 261 more applications were received in the same financial year. Due to this, the department had to borrow an extra $8.4 million.

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The Cabinet estimated that half of Vietnam veterans might eventually be diagnosed with hypertension. Such an event would raise the payout to around $44 million. Faced with an unusual complication, the Cabinet had to re-think the system.

New Zealand gunners in Vietnam.
New Zealand artillerymen carry out a fire mission in South Vietnam.

Change of Rules

Following the newly added symptoms, the Royal New Zealand RSA and the Vietnam Veterans’ Association conducted several meetings.

Andrew Peters, President of the Vietnam Veterans’ Association, actively pursued the cause. The President has extensively researched the topic. He mentioned they could add conditions like prostate cancer and even type-2 diabetes to the symptoms of Agent Orange.

Peters added, “If they come out, you can imagine it’s so common. Practically, every veteran or family will qualify. So it’s going to be a huge payout.

His team is still trying to figure out several things. “I’ve got a group. We’re working on this. And we’re going to talk to the Government. But, there are several grey areas, and we need to clear all this up,” the President exclaimed in one of his interviews.

Sir Jeremiah Mateparae, ex-Governer General of New Zealand, has also been involved in the discussions. The Crown has appointed him as the representative to head the required changes.

With several changes underway, it is likely that the government of New Zealand will soon have to allocate a larger sum for the veterans. Currently, seven approved conditions qualify for the payment. Nevertheless, each veteran can receive only a single compensation even if they carry multiple symptoms.