By Producer
NBC News
updated 8/18/2006 9:40:50 PM ET 2006-08-19T01:40:50

A federal appeals court for veterans claims in a ruling Friday expanded the group of Vietnam veterans who may have come in contact with the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to include those who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims ruled that Jonathan Haas, who served in the Navy off the Vietnam coast and never set foot in the country, is entitled to relief for exposure to Agent Orange.

In 2001, Haas submitted an application for VA disability compensation, requesting service connection for diabetes mellitus, peripheral neuropathy and loss of eyesight resulting from "exposure to [A]gent [O]range/radioactive materials" during his service.

Haas testified that during his tour aboard the U.S.S. Mount Katmai, he often saw large clouds of chemicals being dropped by aircraft over the forests. He further stated:  "[T]hese large clouds would drift out over the water because of the prevailing offshore winds, and they would engulf ships, my ship in particular.  Now you could see the chemicals, you could taste them, smell them, and they landed on your skin."

Haas reported that his exposure occurred in 1966 or 1967. He noted that he was on an ammunition ship about for approximately 20 days at a time, for eight months during each of his two deployments. He testified that he would have to navigate in close proximity to the shoreline to deliver supplies because the "boats that were doing the patrolling could not leave the stations more than a certain amount of time[.] . . . [T]hey couldn't steam out 5 miles to pick up supplies. "

Veterans groups applauded the court's decision. John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in a written statement, "Some of the inequities of the application of presumptive coverage for exposure to Agent Orange have finally been set aside." Rowan also said, "This Court decision will allow for an untold number of veterans and their families to receive the compensation and health care they are entitled to, as well as other VA programs."

In the 31-page decision, the court determined the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been unlawfully denying presumptive disability compensation for exposure to Agent Orange for service members who served in the waters offshore of Vietnam and earned the Vietnam Service Medal.

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