The United States Department of Veterans Affairs is paying benefits to at least 21 US service members sickened from exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa, despite Pentagon assertions that the Vietnam War defoliant had never been brought to the island.
According to Board of Veterans’ Appeals’ (BVA) rulings reviewed by Okinawa Times, the payments are being made to veterans who had been stationed on bases including Kadena Air Base, Naha Military Port and Camp Schwab during the 1960s and ‘70s. The service members’ testimonies state defoliants were stored within military facilities and sprayed around fences and runways; veterans also claim they were exposed to the chemicals via contaminated equipment brought back to Okinawa from Vietnam. As a result of their exposure to Agent Orange – which contained dioxin – the veterans developed cancers, leukemia, heart diseases and other serious illnesses.
One former Marine who had been stationed at Camp Schwab, Nago City, between 1974 and 1975, described transporting barrels of Agent Orange between Makiminato Service Area (present-day Camp Kinser), Urasoe City, and Camp Schwab. He also witnessed the spraying of vegetation near his worksite; “He would often lay or kneel on the ground while performing maintenance on the vehicles in the motor pool,” stated the BVA summary.
In March 2021, the BVA concluded, “after resolving all reasonable doubt in favor of the Veteran, the Board finds that presumptive service connection for diabetes mellitus type II based on in-service exposure to herbicide agents is warranted.”
Details of all 21 winning claims are available via this link.
The veterans’ accounts of exposure – and these BVA decisions to award them compensation – contradict Pentagon assertions that defoliants had never been brought to Okinawa. The US government has repeatedly claimed, including in statements to the Japanese government, that it has no records of defoliant storage or usage on Okinawa, and no ships carrying the substances ever visited here.
In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the pace of BVA decisions to compensate veterans exposed to Agent Orange on Okinawa. According to the BVA database, prior to 2013, it had only awarded claims to two veterans, but since then, 19 more claims have been granted. Two factors may have contributed to the rise: In 2013, barrels containing the components of Agent Orange – the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, and the dioxin, TCDD – were unearthed on land formerly used by Kadena Air Base; moreover, in 2018, the US Government Accountability Office released a report revealing that at least two ships transporting defoliants had visited Japan in 1969 and 1970.
During the Vietnam War, the US military used Okinawa as a key launchpad for the conflict, training troops, storing supplies, and staging B-52 bombing sorties from the island; prior to Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese control in 1972, 13,000 tons of chemical weapons and approximately 1000 nuclear warheads were stockpiled on the island.
Between 1961 and 1971, the United States sprayed millions of liters of Agent Orange and other defoliants in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to kill crops and jungle. Agent Orange contained dioxin which sickened many people in southeast Asia – but the US government has never paid any compensation to these victims.
According to federal government guidelines, US veterans who had served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 are automatically presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. If they fall ill with certain illnesses, including Parkinson’s Disease and cancers of the bladder, prostate, and lungs, they are eligible for US government assistance. Outside Vietnam, the Pentagon also admits to spraying Agent Orange in Cambodia, Canada, Laos, Thailand and along the Korean DMZ.
On 2 August 2022, the US Congress passed the PACT Act which extended assistance to veterans exposed to Agent Orange on the US territories of Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll.
As for Okinawa, in addition to the 21 winning decisions in the BVA database, there are hundreds of other cases where veterans’ claims for Agent Orange exposure on the island were rejected or remanded while the BVA requested further evidence be provided, a process which can take many years.
During the Vietnam War, as many as 50,000 Okinawans worked within military bases, often performing dangerous tasks without sufficient safety equipment. Some of these employees are now concerned about their own health and the US government’s lack of accountability.
Mizushima Mitsuhisa, is a former base employee who currently provides counseling for Okinawans exposed to asbestos on US military installations. Reacting to the veterans’ testimonies about the presence of Agent Orange on the island, he told Okinawa Times, “It is outrageous that the military did not inform base employees of the dangers and let them work without any thought to the health risks.”
Mizushima called on the governments of the United States and Japan to investigate the issue and consider providing compensation to exposed Okinawans.
“All the base workers from that time are now elderly, and many of them have passed away without knowing about this damage to their health. There is no reason to compensate US veterans but not base workers,” he said.