The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is expanding its efforts to determine how Vietnam veterans and their children have been affected by exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
The VA will conduct its first nationwide survey of Vietnam veterans in more than three decades and request an outside panel of experts to continue its work studying the health effects of Agent Orange on veterans, their children and their grandchildren. Both initiatives were discussed Thursday in Washington at a forum hosted by ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot on the possible multi-generational impacts of Agent Orange.
Vietnam veterans have argued for years that their exposure to the toxic herbicide has damaged their health as well as their children’s. From 1965 to 1970, some 2.6 million U.S. service members were potentially exposed to Agent Orange, which contained a dangerous strand of the chemical dioxin. While the VA has linked Agent Orange exposure to a host of diseases in Vietnam vets, experts and veterans advocates have criticized the lack of research into the effects on future generations.
“I believe that these individuals deserve an answer,” Linda Spoonster Schwartz, the VA’s assistant secretary for policy and planning, said in response to a question about the lack of research. “I believe that we need to at least ask the question. … This is the right thing to do.”
ProPublica and The Pilot have been examining the effects of Agent Orange for the past year and have heard from more than 5,500 veterans and their families. Thursday’s forum – titled A Toxic Legacy: Has Agent Orange Hurt the Children of Vietnam Vets? – featured veterans advocates, researchers and policy makers. It also provided a rare opportunity for frustrated veterans to vent directly to high-ranking VA officials. Veterans came from as far away as Mississippi and Pennsylvania to share their stories. Pilot photographer Stephen M. Katz told of his own health problems, which he believes may be linked to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange.
In one emotional exchange, Reginald Russell Sr., an Army veteran from Suffolk, Va., rose from the audience and accused the VA of ignoring anecdotal evidence that Agent Orange had harmed children of vets. Russell’s first son, born shortly after he returned from Vietnam in 1971, died inexplicably at 9 months old. His youngest son, born a few years later with a heart defect, died in 2012 at 32.
Russell held up a photo of a grave marker: “That’s my child,” he said, choking up.
“I can’t imagine the pain you’re having,” said Schwartz, who joined the VA in 2014 after years spent researching and advocating for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. “Let me say that this is a new day. … We can do this study. I know you’ve heard this before, and so have I, but we will do this not just for the ones who have passed away, but for the ones who have yet to be born.”
A small number of male veterans’ children – those born with spina bifida – are eligible for Agent Orange disability payments from the VA. So are the children of female vets born with about a dozen other defects.