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Ellis calls on Congress to expand Agent Orange coverage to all Vietnam vets

Former Macon Mayor Jack Ellis, and surrounded by Vietnam veterans, conducts a news conference about Agent Orange.
Former Macon Mayor Jack Ellis, and surrounded by Vietnam veterans, conducts a news conference about Agent Orange. wmarshall@macon.com

While the Department of Veterans Affairs has expanded coverage of troops exposed to Agent Orange, a group of Macon veterans says the VA has not gone far enough.

The group was led by Jack Ellis, former mayor of Macon and an Army airborne infantryman who fought in the Vietnam War. In a news conference at the Macon-Bibb County Government Center, Ellis also called for Congress to make benefits retroactive for children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange if the child suffers from spina bifida.

The VA website states that spina bifida, a debilitating condition, is presumed to be caused by the exposure of the father to Agent Orange. Ellis’ son has spina bifida.

“My son has never been able to walk in his life,” Ellis said in an interview prior to the news conference. “That is a direct result of my exposure to Agent Orange.”

Ellis said the VA in 1994 made those children eligible for compensation but did not make it retroactive to their birth. He estimated about 2,200 children were affected.

Ellis also called for allowing all Vietnam vets to get a free physical every year at the VA’s expense.

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., was in the midstate Thursday conducting a news conference in Warner Robins with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and others after they toured Robins Air Force Base.

Asked about the issues Ellis was raising, Bishop said he is a co-sponsor of legislation currently under consideration by the House of Representatives that would make the spina bifida compensation retroactive to birth.

Isakson, chairman of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the VA currently is considering whether 19 ailments could be attributed to Agent Orange exposure.

“We are studying to make sure the scientific tie of Agent Orange to the disease is specifically there,” he said.

A Vietnam veteran supporting Ellis’ position was Leroy Thomas Sr., who served in the Navy in Vietnam.

Thomas said he served on a ship off the shores of Vietnam and thinks he was exposed to Agent Orange as a result of the wind blowing it out to sea.

Thomas said he suffers from diabetes and blames it on Agent Orange. The VA does not recognize him as having been exposed.

“We don’t want Vietnam veterans to be forgotten,” Thomas said.

Agent Orange was a defoliant widely used in Vietnam to destroy the cover and food supply of enemy troops.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story did not fully state Jack Ellis' role in Vietnam. He was in the U.S. Army airborne infantry.

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