So you served in Thailand during the Vietnam war, and now have a disability that you claim is related to Agent Orange or tactical herbicide exposure in Thailand.
Seems like a straightforward claim – after all, you’ve heard that the VA is supposed to concede exposure in certain cases.
But then you hit a roadblock.
Maybe you get a letter from the VA that says something like this:
“At this time we do not have enough evidence to verify that you were exposed to Agent Orange and/ or other herbicides while stationed in Thailand. We requested a search of additional files and records to help us verify his exposure. We are unable to decide your claim for survivors’ benefits without a response to our request. Once we receive a response to our request, we will be able to decide your claim. If we deny your claim, you will have the ability to file an appeal with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Please reach out if you have additional questions.”
“What on earth does that mean?” you might ask.
Here’s what it means: the VA is going to reach out to a special government agency within the US Army known as the JSRRC (Joint Service Records Research Center) to help them deny your claim.
Why does the VA contact the JSRRC?
The VA has long made the task of service connecting disabilities alleged to result from Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure next to impossible for veterans to prove.
It took an Act of Congress – literally – before the VA conceded Agent Orange exposure for veterans who served with “Boots on the Ground” in the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, although nobody seriously denied that Agent Orange and tactical herbicides were poured on that country like milk on cereal.
And even then, the VA fights allegations of exposure to Agent Orange and tactical herbicides like its defending the walls of Jericho. We know Agent Orange and tactical herbicides were stored in Okinawa and Johnson Atoll (and likely Guam and other locations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific), for example, but the VA denies those claims out of pocket, without consideration.
So it came as no surprise in around 2015 when the VA decided that it was not going to service-connect disabilities to alleged Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposures in Thailand without the “blessing” of this mysterious little government unit known as the “JSRRC.”
The JSRRC is officially known as the Joint Services Records Research Center, and it is operated by the US Army.
According to the JSRRC’s website, it’s official mission is to:
“Research[ ] official military unit records and data bases for information which may verify the causal incident described by a Veteran in a disability claim for compensation. The purpose for JSRRC’s research is to identify evidence of record for the VA to consider in reaching its decision on Veterans’ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other stipulated health related claims submitted for disability benefits.”
Its unofficial mission?
Rubber stamp VA denials of service connection when a veteran claims service connection for a disability resulting from Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure or PTSD due to Military Sexual Trauma.
When does the VA contact the JSRRC?
When a veteran alleges that he or she was exposed to Agent Orange and tactical herbicides outside the Republic of Vietnam, the VA is supposed to follow their M-21 manual for step-by-step instruction on what to do. Click here to read the steps the VA wants its raters to follow in Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claims.
The VA is supposed to concede Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure in Thailand in the following scenarios – this means the VA is NOT supposed to contact JSRRC. However, it is worth noting that in the VA’s quest to continue to make it impossible for most vets to service connect Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure, VA raters rarely concede exposure without a fight.
First, if you are a veteran who served in the Air Force in Thailand during the Vietnam era at one of the following list of Royal Thai Air Force bases (RTAFB), as a security patrolman, security patrol dog handler, member of the security police squadron, or “otherwise near the air base perimeter as shown by evidence of daily work duties, performance evaluation reports, or other credible evidence,” the VA is supposed to conceded herbicide exposure on a direct (“facts-found”) basis:
Don Muang, and
Second, if a veteran served at a US Army Base in Thailand during the Vietnam era as a member of a military police unit or with a military police MOS (military occupational specialty), the VA is supposed to concede exposure to Agent Orange or tactical herbicides as well.
For this reason, the Veterans Law Blog® has provided several ways that veterans can establish these criteria using lay and other evidence.
The reality of the situation is that the VA still denies service connection claims by veterans with disabilities resulting from Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure, usually employing the “you didn’t prove that you have specialized knowledge that allows you to recognize Agent Orange or tactical herbicides” so you can’t prove you were actually exposed.
The Veterans Court has laid into the BVA for these sorts of denials but, well, the BVA doesn’t care either. Take a read of this memorandum decision from Judge Pietsch in an Agent Orange exposure claim for a veteran who claimed actual Agent Orange exposure while serving in the Republic of Korea.
What did this decision change at the Board of Veterans Appeals?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
In August 2015, the VA released this memo:
In other words, even though we know that Agent Orange and tactical herbicides were used in Thailand during the Vietnam war, the US Air Force has told the VA that it never happened.
This memo is nothing short of gaslighting.
And it is still the VA’s official unofficial policy in service connection claims by veterans alleging Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure outside the Republic of Vietnam.
And this memo is the reason why – even today – we see the VA deny Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claims for veterans in Thailand.
In fact, I will tell you that in 14 years of practicing VA law, I have NEVER seen the JSRRC concede Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure in Thailand (or anywhere, for that matter).
If you have anything that contradicts my experience, I’d love to see your decision granting your Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claim in Thailand based on a favorable JSRRC memo.
What happens when the VA contacts the JSRRC?
Well, since the COVID pandemic hit, the JSRRC has been shut down. Closed. Not working.
Veterans with Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claims get sicker and die while waiting for the JSRRC to reopen. As of May 2021, the backlog of claims at the JSRRC is massive.
But what will you get for all that waiting?
In nearly every single case, absolutely nothing. Here’s a sample of the “memo” that the JSRRC “sends” to the VA – this one is in a Blue Water Navy case but it doesn’t look all that different from the “memo” that the JSRRC “sends” to the VA in Thailand Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claims.
Note the date, first of all. 2009. 12 years ago. Largely irrelevant.
Based on that 12 year old, largely irrelevant memo, the VA routinely finds that Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claims for veterans serving in Thailand “cannot be corroborated.”
In other words, the claim is denied.
What does a veteran do?
So you might be feeling pretty hopeless right about now and, well, you’re not wrong to feel that way.
But it is not worth giving up your claim. Instead, consider doing the following:
- Accept that if you file a claim alleging a disability results from Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure, you will have a long fight on your hand.
- Reach out to an attorney with experience handling Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claims for veterans serving in Thailand. These attorneys have long, hard experience proving up these claims and often know the path through the minefield laid by the VA.
- Use lay evidence to support your Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claims. Not just any lay evidence, though. Refer to this list as a starting point – every time I see a veteran establish a new way of proving Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claims, I update the list with the tactics that veteran used.
- Do. Not. Give. Up. If there is one thing I have learned in 14 years of handling VA claims, it is that the longer you stay involved in your VA claims and appeals, the more likely you are to win. Especially if you have an attorney. At my firm, for example, we engage in a “tighten the lasso” approach to Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claims. Our goal is to remove the VA’s reasons, one at a time, for denying a veterans Agent Orange and tactical herbicide exposure claim or appeal. This can take years, and one or more trips to the Veterans Court, but “not giving up” is a viable strategy when it comes to these claims.