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Veterans exposed to chemicals while serving in Panama Canal Zone seek VA care

Courtesy of Steven Price
Steven Price during his stint with the Army in the Panama Canal Zone.

Steven Price joined the Army in the 1980s, around the time when the Reagan administration made combating leftist forces in Central America a priority.

Price, who trained as a radio operator, remembered the U.S. military’s relentless war on mosquitoes and foliage in the region. From his vantage point atop some of the highest mountains in Panama, he witnessed an unusual practice.

“A jet or a helicopter would fly by and blow off the top of the hill — literally blow the grass off. Inside the artillery round [they used] was Agent Orange,” Price said.

Those flattened, defoliated areas would later serve as landing zones. Price said U.S. authorities also used insecticides to help control the spread of malaria. He remembered trucks spraying a solution that he believed was DDT mixed with diesel oil.

“That mist would lay at night in the air and kill the mosquitoes," he explained. "But when you’d get up in the morning, you’d still smell that scent of kerosene, DDT.”

Decades later, Price was diagnosed with chronic B-cell leukemia after he complained of allergies. When a VA doctor told him that the cancer could only have been caused by toxic exposure, Price immediately thought back to Panama.

“I knew it right away,” he explained. “There was no other place in my mind where I would've been exposed.”

Courtesy of Steven Price
Steven Price during his stint with the Army in the Panama Canal Zone.

Reports have documented the military’s use of commercial herbicides containing dioxin in the Panama Canal Zone, as well as the passage of herbicides through the canal itself.

A 2022 law called the PACT Act made it easier for most veterans to get care and benefits if they were exposed to toxins. The VA now assumes that veterans who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and post-9/11 were exposed. If they get sick with certain conditions, they’re covered as long as they can show proof of service.

Panama Canal Zone veterans were not explicitly named in the PACT Act. But the law gave the VA the ability to pinpoint other groups of veterans in need of benefits. The agency hasn’t yet done that for the Panama Canal Zone cohort.

Instead of getting coverage automatically, Panama Canal Zone veterans have to go through a lengthy process to prove that their health problems are related to toxic exposure.

Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas said his office was aware of many such veterans who have struggled to get their VA claims approved.

“So, as you can imagine, it's very frustrating for folks when they keep coming back to the VA and letting them know about these health problems — how they believe it's connected to their service — but still haven't been able to get any relief,” he explained.

The VA has proposed expanding the list of places where it will assume veterans were exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides. It would include parts of Canada and India, but not Panama.

The Miraflores Locks (left) and the Cocoli Locks of the Panama Canal.
Mauricio Valenzuela
The Miraflores Locks (left) and the Cocoli Locks of the Panama Canal.

In a statement, VA officials said they still need more information from the military about what kinds of herbicides might have been used in Panama:

“Currently, VA recognizes presumption for herbicide (Agent Orange or others) exposure in locations explicitly defined in the PACT Act and regulation. Working closely with DoD’s Armed Forces Pest Management Board, VA reviewed in detail locations where Agent Orange and other tactical herbicides were tested, stored, transported, or used outside Vietnam and developed this list: Herbicide Tests and Storage Outside Vietnam - Public Health (va.gov). VA currently uses this list to establish direct service connection.

VA continues to review all available evidence with DoD. If the DoD informs VA that there is sufficient evidence that Agent Orange or tactical herbicides were ever used, transported, tested or stored in Panama, that information would be added to the DoD list.”

Courtesy of Steven Price
Steven Price and fellow U.S. soldiers photographed during their Army in the Panama Canal Zone.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the VA and Department of Defense have had trouble communicating about how and where the military dispersed herbicides around the world.

Castro argued that there are enough reports of exposure from Panama that the VA should follow up now.

“I think it may be a matter of cost, the fact that they've not gone back and done the research to verify these reports," he said. "But so much anecdotal evidence by veterans who served there [the Panama Canal Zone] has made it clear that there was herbicide use. People shouldn't have to fight with the VA to get covered for things like cancer.”

Castro introduced a bill that would establish a presumption of service connection for more than a dozen illnesses and conditions associated with exposure to herbicide in the Panama Canal Zone between 1958 and 1999. He and other members of Congress also sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough last month urging him to expand benefits and services for veterans who were sickened after toxic exposures in the region.

The VA encouraged veterans who think they may have been affected by herbicide use to file claims and approach the agency for care. VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said each case will be reviewed individually.

“When a Veteran applies for care, VA will use all available information to determine if Veterans are eligible on any basis,” he said. “VA will consider required entries in the Veteran’s Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record, the Veteran’s Service personnel records, and other sources as necessary, including the veteran’s military service record to determine if the Veteran participated in a toxic exposure risk activity.”

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.