Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Legacy of Agent Orange

This article was Published in The Fresno Bee online on Saturday, Jun. 27, 2009

by Jim Doyle

On June 2, the Ford Foundation released the results of a lengthy study on the effects of Agent Orange/Dioxin, and confirmed what Vietnam veterans have known for years: This stuff will kill you, or worse, pass to your children and grandchildren and cause a range of disabilities and diseases that will profoundly affect their lives.

Every good parent does their best to assure a better life for their children, irrespective of time and place. Many Vietnam veterans, however, have unintentionally left a disturbing legacy -- birth defects or damaged genes that carry the potential risk of birth defects in succeeding generations.

This troubling inheritance is directly linked to the harm caused as a result of our exposure to Dioxin, an unintended by product of the combination of 2-4-5-T and 2,4,D that created the herbicide more commonly known as Agent Orange.

Over a period of nearly 10 years, about 21 million gallons of Agent Orange was sprayed over more than 10 million acres in Vietnam. The VA presumes that veterans who served in Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange. It was in the air and in the water. Dioxin was one of the more prevalent culprits at Times Beach and Love Canal.

Agent Orange was composed primarily of two commonly used commercial weed killers, the combination of which creates the chemical 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), known to be toxic in humans. One of these ingredients (2,4,5,T was banned by the World Health Organization in 1970. TCDD accumulates in human fatty tissue, where it is neither readily metabolized nor excreted.

Over time, the toxin accumulates and the effects can remain. In April 1970, the federal government found evidence that TCDD had caused birth defects in laboratory mice, but it was still used in Vietnam for nearly eight more months.

Children and grandchildren of Vietnam veterans suffer from a wide spectrum of conditions including Achondroplasia, a type of dwarfism to Williams Syndrome, a rare disorder caused by "erasure" of about 26 genes from a specific chromosome that can cause mental retardation, a distinctive facial appearance and cardiovascular problems for starters.

Cleft lip and palate, congenital heart disease, fused digits, hip dysplasia, neural tube defects and undescended testicles -- the list goes on.

Who drafted these kids?

Physical, mental and emotional disabilities in our children, and now a growing number of anecdotal reports of these same birth defects turning up in our grandchildren haunt Vietnam veteran parents.

These are the result of wounds that will never be acknowledged by a Purple Heart medal, wounding yet another generation.

When will the casualties of the Vietnam War end? After 30 years of research, the evidence is firmly on the side of Vietnam veterans, both male and female. Despite this evidentiary flood, Mom and Dad are still running the gauntlet of rules, regulations, administrative decisions, legal opinions, forms, physical examinations, evaluations and plain old indifference in an attempt to get treatment and compensation, not only for themselves but for their children.

Again it must be asked, who drafted these kids?

After more than 30 years, isn't it long past time for this issue to be settled?

The Ford Foundation report calls for improved diagnosis and treatment, and continued study of the environmental and health effects of Agent Orange. It also appeals for expanded care, not only for veterans but for their children suffering next-generation effects from their parents' toxic exposures.

In the face of the growing scientific evidence and the conclusions of the foundation study report the government still refuses to fully acknowledge the friendly fire toll of Agent Orange, now visited upon another generation.

Vietnam veteran moms and dads must focus on what will be there for their children after the flag on their casket has been presented.

The reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans who endure daily struggles with diseases and conditions that are a direct result of their exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals used in Vietnam. There is little, if any, serious dispute of that fact. Millions of Vietnamese also suffer the same illnesses and die the same agonized death, and their children too.

Just as Traumatic Brain Injury has become the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so to has the long-festering wound of Agent Orange become the signature wound for Vietnam veterans.

Before his death in January 2000, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., commander of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam and later Chief of Naval Operations, fought to force those in power to take responsibility for their actions and admit that Agent Orange killed more than vegetation.

Zumwalt ordered the spraying of Agent Orange in the Mekong Delta and it ultimately lead to the cancer that killed his Navy lieutenant son, Elmo Zumwalt III at 42. Grandson Elmo IV was born in 1977 with a severe learning disability.

For Admiral Zumwalt, it was simple.

When Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a World War II veteran whose son served in Vietnam and died from cancer, recuses himself from Agent Orange cases, there is a reason.

Vietnam veterans are not asking for a handout, they are just asking for some truth. Oh, and a return on the investment they made in freedom four decades ago. There can be no recession in that account.


  1. Numerous studies have made the clear link between Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD, to an increased risk of dying relatively young due to heart disease.
    Still other studies suggest that Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange (AO) suffer from Parkinson's disease. Yet the Congress fails to pass legislation requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish these aliments as presumptive conditions related to military service. How many families have watched a loved that served in Vietnam, die an untimely death due to the degenerative and incurable condition of Parkinson's disease or heart disease, and had no idea it might have been directly related to their military service?
    A new aliment AL amyloidosis -- a rare incurable disease that can lead to organ failure and death -- has been recognized as a service-connected illness related to herbicide exposure. A new bill is H.R. 2254 would include “Blue Water Navy” veterans ... and others, including those who received the Vietnam Service Medal (VSM), which could include those who served in support of the war in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, as potently exposed to AO.
    I'm now watching my father, Capt. Robert W. Young, USMC Retired, who served in both Korea and Vietnam, having his good days, and not so good. There's overwhelming evidence that suggests a higher incidence of Vietnam veterans with Parkinson's disease than other population groups.
    Based on the available evidence H.R. 1428
    was written to establish a presumption of service-connection for Vietnam veterans afflicted with Parkinson's disease. Sadly this bill is stuck in committee and will only gain life if more of our elected representatives step forward and co-sponsor the legislation.
    A similar bill introduced during the last session died in committee due to a lack of involvement by our elected representatives. What's wrong with this picture? Based on their lack of commitment, we are faced with the daunting if not impossible task of providing evidence that proves the relationship between veterans military service and these medical conditions.
    One excellent resource for doing so is the U.S. Military Veterans with Parkinson's (USMVP), e-mail Alan Oates at Isn't it time for de-classification of all Department of Defense information that pertains to exposure of U.S. military servicemembers to any toxin at any time? We need epidemiological studies, birth defects registries, and do the outreach necessary to scientifically document the problems suffered by our veterans and their offspring.
    If Congress acted upon the available evidence, we would have a much easier time getting the life-line benefits they deserve. To date, I haven't seen any legislation supporting Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD and an increased risk of heart disease.

  2. (Con't from last posting)

    Many of these, and other chronically ill veterans, need supportive in-home, respite care for family, and finally long-term care. Getting the straight scoop on these programs from the VA can nearly be impossible, unless you know about their social workers. When you do find available help, you're faced with trying to understand the eligibility criteria. Nothing is easy about this process. The veteran needs to be supported by his VA doctor, and the local VA social worker. The local social worker then needs to send the request along to the social workers at the applicable medical center, where they decide if they can afford to pay for those recommended services.
    At some VA Health Care facilities, all concerned get a letter back indicating that due to unprecedented demand, they are unable to provide services, and you go on an indefinite waiting list.
    There needs to be a system that is easy to understand. Step-by-step information needs to be provided, and who to contact for support services. We desperately need the proper funding to meet this unprecedented demand for services.
    I urge you to do a “stress test” of the facilities that serve us, and decide if these services are accessible in your community. If they're not, then I suggest you contact your congressman and tell them that. Supporting veterans needs to be more than just a bumper sticker on a car.
    These veterans, and those that follow, need action now to meet the challenges ahead.
    Carl Young advocates for
    veterans' rights, and is a Life member of the Vietnam Veterans of America