Vietnam vets in line for Agent Orange payouts

In six months of service in Vietnam, Brian Wilson was shot at, had near misses with mines and mortar rounds, killed men and lost close friends.

Those six months also left Mr Wilson and his family battling with a lifetime of medical problems associated with his exposure to Agent Orange.

This week, Vietnam war veterans are likely to be told that their exposure to the defoliant may have damaged their DNA.

But there are signs their 35-year wait for compensation could soon be over, with a report recommending the Government apologise and compensate veterans poisoned by Agent Orange $50,000 each.

Defence Minister Phil Goff would not comment on the Agent Orange Joint Working Group report’s recommendations, but said he and Veterans Affairs Minister Rick Barker would be meeting Vietnam vets in coming weeks.

The group’s recommendations have the support of the Opposition, which is offering to work with Labour to secure an outcome.

National veteran affairs spokeswoman Judith Collins, who took the veterans’ plight to Parliament’s health select committee in 2003, says it is time for decisive action.

“It’s really important that we stop playing silly games and get onto it.”

But after a history of delays and denials, Mr Wilson and groups such as the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association – which commissioned a similar Massey study – are not celebrating yet.

Mr Wilson applied, for five “long and bitter” years, for a war disablement pension. Despite frequent setbacks, he now has had officially recognised 11 psychological and physical illnesses and injuries, for which he is paid $333 a fortnight in his pension.

He is angry over the lack of action. Veterans were dying at a rate of about four a month, he said, and the rate was accelerating.

Prompted by the lack of justice, in 2001 the veterans’ association commissioned Massey’s Dr Al Rowland, one of the world’s top molecular geneticists, to see if exposure to nuclear radiation had caused genetic damage.

The research found a small but significant amount of genetic damage in veterans exposed to nuclear radiation during Operation Grapple, which took place between 1957 and 1958 at the Christmas Malden islands in Kiribati.

The British legal firm Rosenblatt is using the research in a £1 billion ($3 billion) claim against the British Government.

“It’s something we can’t really rely on, and never have. Even if it does come to pass, the compensation may not be fairly available to all those who have been affected,” said association chairman Roy Sefton.

That report and a psychological impact study, which found the veterans suffered more depression, and had poorer perceived health and memory, have languished with ministry officials, he said.

He wanted the Government to acknowledge the ongoing effects of radiation exposure, and reduce the red tape surrounding war pensions.

“We’re not asking a hell of a lot.”

Of the 550 New Zealand Navy personnel who took part in Operation Grapple, only 160 are still alive.

Published: 2006, Jul, 23. | Time-stamp: 11:39 PM Sunday | By: Errol Kiong | Article Link: nzherald.co.nz | Article Title: Vietnam Vets in Line for Agent Orange Payouts.

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