BY PAUL SUTTON
For nearly fifty years, thousands of gallons of ink have been used to write billions of words about the exposure of American troops to herbicides in Vietnam. Much also has been written about the subsequent birth defects in the children of those men and women. This article is by one veteran whose exposure to herbicides has had a severe impact on the health of his three sons.
Some legislative attempts have resulted in laws requiring the VA to treat, compensate, and otherwise help us—and, in a limited sense, to help children afflicted with one birth defect: spina bifida. And that, only after a nearly six-year effort to address a multitude of herbicide-caused birth defects in our children.
But virtually nothing has been done to help veterans exposed to those same herbicides outside of Vietnam, including in the South China Sea where thousands of Navy and Marine Corps personnel served and were exposed—just like those who had boots on the ground in Vietnam.
Others were affected in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Okinawa, Guam, and a virtually unknown place—Johnston Atoll. This article focuses on Thailand, with special attention to Laos and Cambodia.
Legislative efforts are underway in the House and the Senate to very belatedly recognize the service of American veterans and their exposures in Thailand. In the Senate, S.2105 was introduced in November 2017, while H.R.4843 was introduced in the House the following January. Both bills contain identical wording and have been referred to the Veterans’ Affairs Committees in their respective chambers. No hearings or additional actions have been scheduled. As of August 7, S.2105 was co-sponsored by seventeen senators, and H.R.4843 had thirty-five co-sponsors.
We all know and pretty much understand what herbicides—commonly referred to as Agent Orange—are, and we know about their adverse health impacts on humans. Likewise, many are familiar with the defoliation program known as Operation Ranch Hand. So we’re not going to rehash those topics, but will focus on the refusal of our government to officially recognize and right a long-standing wrong perpetrated against veterans who served in Thailand supporting the war in Vietnam.
Vietnam and Thailand were combat zones. Both countries had similar Rules of Engagements. Although most of the Air Force bases in Thailand were staging areas for operations all over Vietnam, American military personnel in Thailand also were subjected to aggressive, repeated attacks from communist sympathizers. In its 1968 Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operation (CHECO) Project Southeast Asia report, Attack on Udorn, the Air Force noted that Thailand was a “prime target of Communist expansion, and the intensified awareness of the Communists was exacerbated by the Air Force presence.” The Department of Defense had legitimate concerns about the threat to U.S. personnel and equipment in Thailand, which led to the use of herbicides inside base perimeters as a means of preventing enemy incursions. Throughout this article, we will refer to the sixty-odd CHECO reports we’ve discovered.