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on March 10, 2016 at 7:00 AM, updated March 10, 2016 at 8:29 AM
Using the iPad his wife gave him as a retirement gift, Gene Clarke was surprised by all the online documents he found showing U.S. soldiers who served in Korea during 1967 may have been exposed to Agent Orange.
A harder task has been convincing government officials that Agent Orange was in fact used before 1968 in the narrow demilitarized zone between North and South Korea where about 55,000 U.S. soldiers served during the mid- and late-1960s.
Clarke’s breakthrough came last week, when the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, supported by two other veteran’s organizations, asked Congress to extend medical benefits and compensation to veterans who served in Korea in 1967 and have one of the illnesses linked to Agent Orange.
Clarke is an Army veteran who served in Korea in 1967. His efforts mean thousands of veterans could become eligible for ailments they hadn’t suspected were connected to Agent Orange, the highly toxic chemical used to defoliate trees to expose enemy troops below.
Based on his conversations with veterans and veteran’s organizations, Clarke, of Danbury, Conn., believes roughly 25,000 U.S. soldiers spent time in Korea in 1967.
Some of them likely live in Pennsylvania and in the midstate, although there’s no easy way to know how many, said directors of veterans affairs for two midstate counties.
“There are probably people out there who have no clue why they are sick because they weren’t in Vietnam,” said Tony DiFrancesco, the director of veteran’s affairs for Dauphin County.
DiFrancesco was referring to the fact that many Vietnam veterans are eligible for benefits related to Agent Orange. So are veterans who served in the so-called DMZ in Korea from from 1968 to 1971. The eligibility stems from the fact the U.S. government has acknowledged use of Agent Orange in those areas beginning in 1968.
Meanwhile, Clarke about 10 years ago developed Type II diabetes — one of the conditions associated with Agent Orange.
He was unaware of a possible connection until he learned that children of veterans who served in Korea in 1967 who were born with spina bifida, which has been linked to Agent Orange, are eligible for benefits.
That made no sense to Clarke. So after retiring from a 38-year career as a stockbroker a few years ago, he devoted himself to Internet searches which eventually produced documents showing Agent Orange was tested by the U.S. in Korea in 1967, and was also used by Korean forces.
It took another big effort to convince high-level officials to look into the matter.
Last week, VFW National Commander John A. Biedrzycki Jr. told the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees that there are veterans suffering from ailments directly linked to Agent Orange who aren’t eligible for benefits under existing law, which he asked Congress to change to include veterans who served in Korea in 1967. The VFW said the request is based on documents provided by Clarke.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., an influential member of the Senate committee, then asked the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — the VA — to approve the benefits.
Still, there’s a history of similar efforts dragging on for years, and sometimes failing.
However, Clarke, 69, has been in close contact with VFW officials and Blumenthal, and says he believes they appreciate that the people who need the benefits are in their final years, and the opportunity to help them will quickly pass. “I have a good feeling, because it has reached the right people,” he said Tuesday. “I have a sense this thing will get done sooner rather than later.”
If the government extends the benefits, it could mean better health care for the affected veterans and compensation for them, and their spouses, for disabilities related to Agent Orange exposure. Agent Orange has been linked to a list of illnesses, including several cancers, Type II diabetes and assorted ailments affecting the skin, nervous system and organs.
Clarke, a Bronx, N.Y., native who had a successful career as a stock broker, said he has had good health care and a solid financial situation. But he stays in contact with numerous members of his squadron, and said some have severe health issues and aren’t as well-off.
“If we can get this done sooner rather than later it will help a lot of people,” he said.