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Australian Veterans See Gains

Many claim hope in long battle for Agent Orange compensation

VIETNAM veterans in Australia and New Zealand battling for Agent Orange compensation see signs the tide of this war may turn their way. Late last month, the United States Veteran Affairs Administration decided to grant disability benefits to some 1,800 Vietnam veterans with a rare disease.

The Bush administration denies the $20 million-plus aid is compensation for exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange. But the decision follows a long-awaited study of Agent Orange, by the US Center for Disease Control, showing Vietnam vets have a high risk of having a specific type of cancer.

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Based on the US decision, Australian and New Zealand Vietnam veterans' groups are asking their governments to grant pensions and benefits to an estimated 100 Vietnam servicemen (and families) with this disease.

``We expect them to follow the US lead on this,'' says Tim McCombe, president of the Australian Vietnam Veterans Association.

Between 1962 and 1972, 47,000 Australians fought in Vietnam alongside US troops. New Zealand sent 3,400 soldiers. Most served in the Phuoc Tuy province, one of the areas most heavily defoliated by chemical spraying.

As in the US, Australian society was fiercely split over its country's participation. Upon returning home, veterans here ``experienced the same latent hostility and public apathy encountered by veterans in the US'' and ``the high incidence of chronic illness,'' writes professor Jock McCulloch at Deakin University, author of ``The Politics of Agent Orange.''

Similarly, Australian compensation claims for exposure to chemical defoliants have faced an uphill battle. As in the US, budget-conscious Australian governments have demanded proof.

In 1985, an independent Australian Royal Commission investigating the issue found no Australian servicemen had been exposed to Agent Orange and that its principal ingredient, the 2,4,5-T herbicide, was harmless.

The credibility of the commission's findings were cast into doubt by subsequent claims by participating scientists that their data had been altered by the commission and a US Environmental Protection Agency decision to ban the use of 2,4,5-T as a carcinogen. But the commission essentially closed the case in the eyes of the Australian and New Zealand governments.

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Now, new evidence emerging overseas is giving some Vietnam veterans hope for their cause.

``The credibility of the Royal Commission is being undermined by a pattern of reports linking cancer causing dioxins [a toxic ingredient in Agent Orange] to service in Vietnam,'' says Monty Hollow, a Melbourne lawyer, who has represented Vietnam veterans

New Zealand Vietnam veteran John Moller points to a US Supreme Court decision last November to award the family of a US Forest Service worker US$1.5 million in damages against Dow Chemical Company. Medical testimony linked the worker's disease and death with his job applying Dow herbicides, including 2,4-D, a chemical also used in Vietnam.

Decisions are expected shortly on two pension and benefits cases before Australian courts that could ``turn the tide'' of government opposition to payments based on herbicide exposure in Vietnam, Mr. McCombe says.

``For years, the Vietnam vets had no natural allies. The Australian government didn't like them because they could disrupt our US relationship and cause problems with chemical companies. The public was, at best, apathetic,'' says McCulloch at Deacon University.

Australian veterans see a shift in public opinion also favoring their efforts. Two years ago, Australia had a ``Welcome Home'' parade to make amends for the cold homecoming many Vietnam vets received. And they cite the environmental movement and the growing concern over the use of chemicals in food and produce as indications of greater political support.

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