The Vietnam War, also known as the Vietnam Conflict, began in 1954. It was fought between the communist regime of North Vietnam (the People’s Army of Vietnam) and the government of South Vietnam (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). North Vietnam was supported by its allies in South Vietnam (the Viet Cong), along with China and the Soviet Union. South Vietnam was backed by the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and South Korea. The war ended in 1975 with the capture of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, by the North Vietnam army and Viet Cong.
Within the Veterans Administration, veterans who served in the armed forces during the Vietnam Conflict are called “Vietnam-era veterans.” For pension purposes, the VA defines the Vietnam-era as (1) the period from February 28, 1961 to May 7, 1975 in the case of a veteran who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period, and (2) August 5, 1964 to May 7, 1975 in all other cases.
Approximately 9.2 million military personnel were on active duty from 1964 to 1975. An estimated 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam. According to VA 2016 population estimates, there are 6.8 million living Vietnam-era veterans. Most are in their mid-60s or older.
Vietnam Veteran Health Problems
Vietnam-era vets were exposed to various occupational hazards that had the potential for causing long-term and even life-threatening health problems.
According to one study, military personnel who served in Vietnam had higher health risks compared to veterans who served in other areas during the same period (militarycme.com). One of the most serious hazards was exposure to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide.
Vietnam vets also had a higher rate of Hepatitis C infections compared to non-veterans and veterans from other wars.
Vietnam-era veterans were exposed to many occupational hazards such as noise and vibration from gunfire, explosives, rockets, heavy weapons, aircraft, equipment and machinery. Noise and vibration injuries can cause hearing loss and tinnitus.
Other types of hazards included:
- Asbestos – a fibrous mineral that causes cancer and lung diseases. Service members who worked in construction, manufacturing, installation, mining, milling and building demolition may have been exposed to asbestos.
- Industrial solvents – used to clean, degrease and thin or strip paint. Exposure to industrial solvents can cause breathing and visual problems, as well as neurological damage.
- Lead – a toxic metal that can cause gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, anemia, high blood pressure, hyperactivity, irritability and memory issues. Found in old pipes, lead-based paint and commercial products.
- Radiation – veterans who served on nuclear submarines and other nuclear ships, handled nuclear weapons or served as x-ray or dental technicians may have been exposed to radiation. Radiation health risks include multiple myeloma, lymphoma, leukemia and cancer.
- Diesel and jet fuels – The combustion or burning of diesel and jet fuel releases toxic gases and air particles that can cause respiratory problems and lung cancer.
- PCBs –used in certain types of products like fluorescent lighting until 1977. Exposure can lead to cancer, neurotoxicity, skin conditions and liver issues.
- CARC paint – a highly toxic paint used on military vehicles to prevent corrosion. When CARC paint is inhaled, it can cause respiratory difficulties and kidney damage.
Agent Orange Exposure
Beginning in 1961, the U.S. military sprayed over 19 million of gallons of Agent Orange and similar types of herbicides in Vietnam and the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to destroy foliage that provided enemy cover. The codename for the defoliation program was Operation Ranch Hand. The chemicals were sprayed near rivers, canals, roads and military bases on over 4.5 million acres of land.
The name Agent Orange comes from the orange band around the storage barrel. Other herbicides included Agent White, Agent Purple, Agent Pink, Agent Green and Agent Blue. Agent Orange contained the chemical Dioxin, a highly toxic substance.
Veterans who served in Vietnam, the DMZ at Thai Air Force bases, and the pilots, flight crews and mechanics of C-123 aircraft (military transport planes used to spray the herbicides) were most likely exposed to Agent Orange or other tactical herbicides.
Herbicides like Agent Orange can cause severe health issues, such as kidney failure, lung cancer, COPD heart disease, diabetes, birth defects, psychological symptoms, multiple myeloma, soft tissue sarcomas, Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathy and prostate cancer.
Vietnam veterans often contracted tropical diseases like Malaria. Other common problems were bacterial and fungal infections. Many vets also became infected with Hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a virus that affects the liver. It is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person. The infection can last a lifetime, and causes scarring of the liver, liver cancer and other liver problems.
Service connected transmission methods for the Hep C virus included vaccines, blood transfusions, blood exposures, tissue/bone transplant; medical procedures involving finger pricks; reused devices and scopes; dental procedures, service tattoos, donated blood, and shared personal items like toothbrushes and razors.
War-zone veterans often experience traumatic events that can develop into long-term mental distress, also known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD was officially recognized as a mental health condition in 1980. A few years later, the National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study was conducted to determine the extent of psychological problems among Vietnam veterans. Participants included Vietnam theater veterans, Vietnam-era veterans, and non-veteran/civilian counterparts. The study concluded that most veterans successfully readjusted to postwar life and experienced very few psychological disorder symptoms.
More recent research has shown a higher prevalence of PTSD among war-era veterans, including a study in which four out of five Vietnam-era veterans reported PTSD symptoms when interviewed 20 to 25 years after their service.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD include agitation, irritability, nightmares, flashbacks, hostility, guilt, emotional detachment, unwanted thoughts, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, self-destructive behavior and social isolation.
VA Long-Term Care Benefits for Vietnam Veterans
The VA provides a special pension to wartime veterans, including Vietnam-era veterans age 65 and older, who need long-term care. The benefit, called Aid & Attendance, is a tax-free reimbursement for home or facility care. To learn more about the benefit and claim process, contact an AVA benefit consultant at (877) 427-8065.