Calling the Agent Orange bill signed into law last week by President Bush "a first step in the right direction," a Utah State University veterans outreach specialist says he believes Vietnam veterans are finally being given the benefit of the doubt.

Tom Goonan is a specialist with USU's Vietnam Veteran Family Assistance Program, one of the first programs funded by the Agent Orange Class Assistance Program (CAP). The program began in the fall of 1989 to serve veterans and their families who have children with disabilities and who live in Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming.Funds for the CAP come from out-of-court settlements by manufacturers of Agent Orange, a defoliant used in Vietnam and alleged to cause disabling injuries and death in veterans and birth defects and disabilities in their offspring.

"The federal government is going to start paying disability compensation for service-connected disabilities for Agent Orange exposure," Goonan explained. "Up to now, they've not admitted a connection and still aren't, but they are giving the veteran the benefit of the doubt, saying there seems to be a higher rate of cancers and disabilities among this population."

Utah State's program continues to grow at a faster rate than expected, said co-director Vonda Lauritzen, a program specialist with the university-affiliated Center for Persons with Disabilities (formerly the Developmental Center for Handicapped Persons.) In its first year of operation, the Vietnam Veteran Family Assistance Program brought some 85 families in the four-state area on board, Lauritzen said. Twenty more families contacted the program in the two months since then.

"Each family has its own needs," Lauritzen said. "Some simply want to know what's available and only after extensive questioning by a member of the program team, do they realize they have family members who fit the profile for our services. Others have multiple-handicapped children in need of extensive support."

The average age of offspring of Vietnam veterans is 15, Goonan points out. Many families already are receiving services through state and local agencies and, in the case of offspring with learning disabilities, schools are helping.

However, Goonan said, USU's program can refer families to additional services or offer additional testing and counseling.

"We work closely with existing service and support agencies in each geographic area," Lauritzen said The majority of the disabilities experienced thus far by USU team members fall into six areas: skeletal - spina bifida, cleft palate, club foot, and shoulder, hip and knee disorders; internal - pancreas problems and organ malformations, kidney, liver and blood disorders, and respiratory and immune system deficiencies; neurological - mild to severe motor skill problems, cerebral palsy; dermatologic - rashes and other skin disorders; tumors, and other - learning disabilities, attention deficit, hyperactivity, emotional, speech and cognitive problems.

"A high percentage of children born to Vietnam veterans are born with low birth weight and display slow development," Goonan said. "Our experience shows 48 out of 100 children in our study have learning disabilities.

"Even if veterans and their families don't think they need our services, we want to hear from them," Goonan stressed.

Contact the Logan-based program either by calling (801) 750-3684 (call collect and say you are a Vietnam veteran seeking information) or write Vietnam Veteran Family Assistance Program, Center for Persons with Disabilities, USU, Logan, UT 84322-6800.