Salazar, 18 colleagues urge VA to provide veterans with appropriate disability benefits

United States military veterans who developed cancer and other health conditions after exposure to a toxic herbicide during their service in the Panama Canal Zone must receive adequate disability compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), according to U.S. Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-FL) and 18 of her colleagues.

“At least 400 veterans who served in the Panama Canal Zone (PCZ) have now developed cancer, heart disease, or other health issues consistent with herbicide exposure. However, they have been consistently denied the disability compensation and recognition they desperately need and deserve,” wrote the lawmakers in a Feb. 16 letter sent to VA Secretary Denis McDonough.

The lawmakers urged McDonough to extend benefits to these veterans by using processes within the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022, which created a new statutory process for establishing presumption of service-connected disabilities for veterans, according to their letter.

“As you move forward with the rulemaking processes to implement the PACT Act, we urge you to establish a presumption of service-connected disability for veterans who served in the PCZ between Jan. 1, 1958, and December 1999, and developed diseases consistent with herbicide exposure,” the 19 members wrote in the bipartisan letter, which Rep. Salazar signed alongside members including U.S. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Brian Mast (R-FL), and Joaquin Castro (D-TX).

They pointed out that as the U.S. Department of Defense routed herbicide to Southeast Asia in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, many vessels offloaded the toxic chemicals at U.S. bases in the Panama Canal to clear outgrowths of vegetation in the area. Available records and veteran accounts of their service corroborate the presence of Agent Orange and Agent Purple in the PCZ. 

And because at least 400 veterans who served in the area now have cancer, heart disease, or other health issues consistent with herbicide exposure, they should receive their proper disability compensation, wrote the lawmakers.

“After reviewing the relevant records and veteran testimonies, we believe that a clear link exists between service in the PCZ and health conditions consistent with herbicide exposure,” they wrote. “With the passage of the PACT Act, Congress fully recognized the importance of expanding the presumption of service-connected disability to veterans who served in areas beyond mainland Vietnam.”

Congress has extended these presumptions before and should do so again in this instance, wrote Rep. Salazar and her colleagues.