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Arkansas veteran continues his fight to fix Agent Orange benefits loophole in Washington

LITTLE ROCK, Ar. (KARK) - (9/14/18) A former Marine from Mena is working with lawmakers in Washington on legislation that would allow veterans who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War to qualify for benefits due to Agent Orange exposure.

Earlier this month, Bill Rhodes traveled to the nation's capitol to meet with Sen. John Boozman, Congressman Bruce Westerman and staff members of both the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees.

"I originally thought send a letter to them [lawmakers] and that would take care of it, but it doesn't work that way," Rhodes said, laughing. "The reaction we got from them was very good. It was rather interesting. I don't think they [the committees] are as well informed as we might think they would be so I've got work to do. But they [Boozman and Westerman] are up on it and familiar with it."

Rhodes is one of the main reasons why Sen. Boozman and Congressman Westerman introduced a bill that would extend Agent Orange benefits to veterans who served in Thailand. He first shared his story with KARK about a year ago regarding his battle for benefits, along with four other veterans from across the country. 

Now, it has turned into a fight for potentially hundreds of thousands of other veterans they served with. 

"It's all new to me," Rhodes said. "I really don't know what to expect next."

Rhodes served our country as a Marine in Thailand at Nam Phong, commonly referred to as the Rose Garden. It was a nearly defunct Royal Thai air strip that the U.S. military revamped and renovated.

According to Veterans' Affairs, it is not one of the bases recognized as having herbicide exposure.

"There's three diseases I have that are actually considered part of the effects of herbicides or the dioxin contamination in herbicides," Rhodes said.

He served in his 20s and was diagnosed with diabetes in his 50s, followed by prostate cancer and heart disease. He did not realize until his 60s that these diseases are part of a list of about of a dozen considered a result of herbicide exposure.

Now one year away from his 70s, Rhodes is working to get his fourth disease, colon cancer, recognized, along with a host of other issues his fellow veterans have.

"I've got a lot of work left to do," he said.

The legislation sponsored by Boozman and Westerman has not been approved in either chamber. 

A similar bill, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, would extend Agent Orange benefits to veterans who were serving on ships off of the coast of Vietnam. It passed out of the House 382-0, but the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs tabled it.

Opponents of the Blue Water bill, including a Department of Veterans' Affairs undersecretary, have testified that the science does not support the claim of exposure. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that extending the Agent Orange benefits for these Navy veterans for 10 years would cost $1.1 billion.

Rhodes said the CBO plans to release its analysis of Boozman and Westerman's legislation soon. 

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