There are many ways to measure the cost of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War: In bombs (7 million tons), in dollars ($760 billion in today’s dollars) and in bodies (58,220).
Then there’s the price of caring for those who survived: Each year, the Department of Veterans Affairs spends more than $23 billion compensating Vietnam-era veterans for disabilities linked to their military service — a repayment of a debt that’s supported by most Americans.
The question has been at the heart of reporting by The Virginian-Pilot and ProPublica over the past 18 months as we’ve sought to reexamine the lingering consequences of Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide sprayed by the millions of gallons over Vietnam.
We’ve written about ailing Navy veterans fighting to prove they were exposed to the chemicals off Vietnam’s coast. About widows left to battle the VA for benefits after their husbands died of brain cancer. About scores of children who struggle with strange, debilitating health problems and wonder if the herbicide that sickened their fathers has also affected them.
Along the way, we noticed some themes: For decades, the federal government has resisted addressing these issues, which could ultimately cost billions of dollars in new disability claims. When science does suggest a connection, the VA has hesitated to take action, instead weighing political and financial costs. And in some cases, officials have turned to a known skeptic of Agent Orange’s deadly effects to guide the VA’s decisions.
Frustrated vets summarize the VA’s position this way: “Delay, deny, wait till I die.”
This month, after repeated recommendations by federal scientific advisory panels, Congress passed a bill directing the VA to pursue research into toxic exposures and their potential effects across generations. But even that will take years to produce results, years some ailing vets don’t have.
The questions we’ve posed have no easy answers. But science — and our own analysis of internal VA data — increasingly points to the possibility that Agent Orange exposure might have led to health problems in the children of veterans. And we can’t help but think of the words displayed at the entrance to the VA headquarters in Washington: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”
We noticed the phrase, a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, during an evening stroll through D.C. in June, a day before hosting a forum on Agent Orange’s generational effects and policy implications. With us that night was Stephen M. Katz, the Virginian-Pilot photographer who initiated our reporting project when he shared the story of his estranged father, a Vietnam vet who’d gotten back in touch to warn that he’d sprayed Agent Orange.