WASHINGTON -- Vietnam War-era service members who were exposed to toxic herbicides are suffering the consequences, regardless of where in southeast Asia they were stationed, an Arkansas veteran says.
Bill Rhodes wants Americans who served in Thailand, like he did, to receive the same help as Americans deployed in Vietnam.
Legislation, introduced by U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., seeks to address the Mena area resident's concerns.
Similar efforts in 2017 and 2019 fell short, but Boozman, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, is hopeful this time will be different.
The committee's chairman, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has included Boozman's language in a larger bill, dubbed the Cost of War Act, which was passed out of committee in May.
"We're going to be working very, very hard to get that over the finish line this Congress, and I think we ... actually have a fair chance of doing that," Boozman said earlier this year.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., has introduced the House version. U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., is a co-sponsor.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military used Agent Orange and a variety of other "tactical herbicides" to kill vegetation and defoliate trees.
Rhodes joined the military in 1968. He departed, more than a decade later, with the rank of staff sergeant, he said.
In 1973, he was stationed in Nam Phong, Thailand, at an air base where herbicides were used, he said.
Nearly a half-century later, "I've got multiple medical problems; three of the major ones associated with herbicide exposure," he said.
Now 72 years old, he is dealing with heart disease, prostate cancer and diabetes.
Under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, the federal government recognized that veterans had been exposed to herbicides while serving in Vietnam.
When one of those veterans develops an illness that has been linked to herbicide exposure, the government now presumes that the medical condition is service-related.
Over the years, the presumption has been extended to other American service members, as well, including those working on Thai bases "at or near the base perimeter."
Rhodes and others argue that the presumption should apply to any American who was stationed there.
A group of veterans, including Rhodes, has been on Capitol Hill over the past two weeks lobbying to change the law.
"We've been up aggravating Congress," Rhodes said Friday. "We've been having meetings with congressmen, senators. Two weeks of it. Fifty-some-odd meetings [with lawmakers or staffers]."
Rhodes is a member of the board of Military-Veterans Advocacy, a Louisiana-based nonprofit group that advocates, litigates and lobbies on behalf of veterans.
He met with Boozman on Thursday and with Westerman the previous week.
It was the second time he'd consulted with them in Washington.
Thus far, he's been unable to meet with U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. to discuss the bill, he said.
"We've tried multiple times," he said.
Getting meetings with Boozman is "not very hard at all," he said.
"Unless something is going on, he's always available," Rhodes said.
Westerman has also been an ally. "He's just 100% supportive of what we're doing," Rhodes added.
Under the legislation, a presumption for U.S. veterans who served on Thai bases between Jan. 9, 1962, and June 30, 1976, would apply "without regard to where on the base the veteran was located or what military job specialty the veteran performed."
"It is reasonable to believe that veterans on Thai bases were exposed to Agent Orange no matter what their jobs were or where their duty stations were," Boozman said in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this year.
When his bill was introduced, Westerman said it was important for the nation to "keep its promises" to its veterans.
"Those who served during the Vietnam War in Vietnam and Thailand have earned care for exposure to Agent Orange, which they endured in service to our nation," he said.
Cotton, an Army veteran who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, portrayed Boozman's efforts as laudable.
"I applaud Sen. Boozman for his work on this important issue and for his leadership on the Veterans Affairs Committee. Our veterans deserve no less than the best medical care our country has to offer," Cotton said in a written statement Sunday.