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VETERANS RUSH TO CLAIM REST OF AGENT ORANGE FUND

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Thousands of Vietnam veterans who say they were harmed by Agent Orange are rushing to meet a Saturday deadline for claiming the remnants of a multimillion-dollar compensation fund.

Outside the cubicles where Aetna Insurance Co. workers answer telephone call about the claims, mementos of the war and its survivors hang on a wall.There are cards and letters of appreciation, newspaper articles and plenty of pictures: of veterans, their spouses, their comrades who have committed suicide, and the massive black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

"A lot of these people are in real bad shape mentally and physically," said Maria Martinez, the claims administrator for the compensation fund. "You just get to know these guys over the telephone, and you feel very bad for them and for what's happened to them throughout the years."

Martinez said Tuesday that her staff of 16 has been inundated with 800 to 1,000 calls per day in the past three weeks, up from about 200 calls a day.

Agent Orange, a toxic, vegetation-destroying chemical, was sprayed in Vietnam by U.S. military aircraft to make it difficult for enemy soldiers to hide and find food. Veterans said it caused illnesses such as cancer and produced birth defects in their children.

Ten years ago, veterans and their families reached a $184 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit against makers of Agent Orange. Veterans started receiving checks in 1989.

About $21 million has not been claimed. Disabled veterans can get from $256 to $12,800; families of deceased veterans can receive from $340 to $3,400. Leftover money will be distributed to those who put in valid claims.

Byron Lloyd of Tampa, Fla., hopes to be compensated for injuries he says are related to his two years in Vietnam, including intestinal and bladder diseases and a rash on his legs.

Lloyd sent in his application Tuesday after hearing about the fund last week from his brother, a disabled veteran.

"It's too bad there's a cutoff period. I don't know why the government continues not to inform people of what they're entitled to," Lloyd said. "It's like they're saying, `We hurt you and we really don't want to own up to it because we know we're going to have to pay for it.' "

Aetna will accept telephone inquiries about the fund from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Saturday. The phone number is (800) 225-4712. Applications must be postmarked no later than midnight Saturday. Applications may be requested by fax at (203) 636-0444.