The Las Vegas Sun; October 15, 2009
For nine years during the Vietnam War the United States sprayed millions of gallons of a toxic chemical over vast areas of jungle — areas traversed by American military forces.
The chemical was shipped to South Vietnam in 50-gallon drums that were identified by their orange stripes. It quickly took on a name that now conjures images of birth defects and horrible diseases: Agent Orange.
The Pentagon authorized the spraying of Agent Orange for two reasons — to defoliate trees so Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese military forces would have less cover, and to poison crop fields to prevent those enemies from having access to plentiful food.
Vietnam veterans began complaining of serious health problems after use of the chemical began in 1962. By 1971, when its use was ended, the evidence that Agent Orange had caused health problems was overwhelming.
Nevertheless, the federal government did not make this issue a priority, even when it became clear that thousands of Vietnam veterans were citing Agent Orange as a cause for their ill health.
It took Congress until 1991 to pass the Agent Orange Act. This law authorized the Department of Veterans Affairs to compile a list of certain diseases prevalent among Vietnam veterans, including cancer, that are presumed to have been caused by Agent Orange. It also allowed Vietnam veterans with those diseases to be covered for their treatments.
Congress also required the Institute of Medicine to report on Agent Orange’s health effects every two years. The latest report, released in July, said another three serious diseases, including Parkinson’s, are now presumed to have an association with Agent Orange.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, former Army chief of staff and a Vietnam veteran, has proposed adding the diseases to the list. “I’ve often asked why, 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam , we’re still trying to determine the health consequences to our veterans,” Shinseki said.
It’s a good question, one that should not have to be asked ever again.