by Dan Savino
The war in Vietnam was unlike any other military conflict in U.S. history. The thick, expansive forest and thriving vegetation consumed all lines of sight, making it almost impossible to spot enemies. The Americans resorted to showering the entire war zone with Agent Orange, a plant-killing, toxic blend of chemicals that fell like rain from 1962 to 1971.
During the Cold War, American efforts to thwart the spread of communism led the United States into almost 20 straight years tirelessly fighting a seemingly unwinnable war. It wasn’t until April 30, 1975 that the U.S. finally pulled out of Vietnam, as the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. To this day, Vietnam veterans continue a fight for their lives against serious illnesses and conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange. Nearly 1.5 million U.S. troops served during the heaviest period of spraying efforts.
“Vietnam veterans continue to suffer and die from the effects of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals to which they were exposed in Southeast Asia,” explains Fred A. Wilcox in a recent interview.
Wilcox, a professor at Ithaca College, is the author of Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange, the first book ever written on the subject, including stories from Veterans denied coverage despite their illnesses directly related to dioxin poison. He refers to Agent Orange as a “weapon of mass destruction.”
Beginning in 1962, the U.S. military unleashed a nine-year long, assault known as Operation Ranch Hand, which aimed to “defoliate forested and rural land, depriving guerillas of cover,” while also eliminating food supply and rural shelter, forcing enemy forces into cities dominated by the United States. The Vietcong used guerilla warfare to compensate for their lack of technology and military capacity, using the natural landscape to ambush U.S. forces on the ground.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA), military aircraft sprayed more than 19 million gallons of chemical herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, eastern Laos and even parts of Cambodia. The most widely used combination of herbicides was known as Agent Orange, named after the orange-striped barrels that contained it.
“Our environment is inundated with toxic chemicals like dioxin,” states Wilcox with a strong sense of urgency. “The same chemical companies that profited from Agent Orange continue to poison our air, food, and water supplies.”
Health Risks and Birth Defects
Exposure to dioxin, a particularly fatal component in Agent Orange, occurs by simply breathing these chemicals in, ingesting contaminated food or drink or absorbing them through the skin or eyes. Organizations such as the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science and the VA’s Environmental Epidemiology Service have confirmed a positive correlation between Agent Orange exposure and increased risk of many life-threatening diseases and birth defects. The most common conditions for exposed veterans are prostate and respiratory cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. The list also includes forms of Leukemia, Parkinson’s and Hodgkin’s disease, Soft Tissue Sarcoma and many more.
Exposed veterans can pass on birth defects to their children as an added danger associated with Agent Orange. One of the most common defects is Spina Bifida, as well as deformities like cleft lip and palate, congenital heart disease, clubfoot, hip dysplasia and others. In 2000, Dr. Han Kang of VA’s Environmental Epidemiology Service published a study finding that the risk of birth defects was “significantly associated with the mother’s military service in Vietnam.” In 1991, the U.S. Congress put forth the Agent Orange Act, which gave the VA authority to determine the qualifications associated with individual compensation and also to determine which diseases are included under coverage.
The VA Compensates Exposed Vietnam Veterans
Starting in 1978, the U.S. government offered disability compensation and health care benefits to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Candidates must file claims and be approved for coverage by the VA. The Environmental Agents Service produces a newsletter called the “Agent Orange Review,” to provide Agent Orange information and related resources to veterans, their families, and anyone with concerns about the herbicides used during the Vietnam War.
According to the National Veteran Organization Inc., a VA study concluded that the average time to process and receive a response on a claim is 139 days. If a veteran is denied compensation it is said to take “an average of 1,160 days to receive a final decision,” before a veteran can even appeal a denial. They pledged in 2010 to start a new initiative to “fast track” claims processing. This coming after members of Veterans for Constitutional Law asserted that, “records from 1970 to 1992 showed that the VA only approved 4 percent of claims.”
Regardless of the small percentage of compensated veterans, it still cost the VA $28.6 billion in 2005 to fulfill compensation obligations. This number increased 71 percent in 2011, costing the VA $48.8 billion. In 2008, the VA extended coverage to those who handled Agent Orange outside of Vietnam, where Agent Orange was stored and shipped out. Two years prior, the VA decided to add heart disease to its list of compensated diseases associated with exposure to herbicides. There are an estimated 349,000 individuals receiving Agent Orange disability benefits and this number is now expected to increase to 500,000.
“Whatever the VA is doing for veterans is too little, too late,” explains Wilcox. “The government must compensate all victims of Agent Orange.”
Wilcox is currently working on a new book on Agent Orange’s devastating effects on the Vietnamese people. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates up to 3 million Vietnamese children and adults as having suffered health problems related to Agent Orange exposure. According to Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 people being killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects.
A 2004 lawsuit by a victim’s rights group called the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, charged chemical companies like Dow Chemical and Monsanto with liability in causing personal injury to those exposed to their chemicals. However, the lawsuit was denied in a federal District Court. It was ruled that Agent Orange was not considered a poison under international law.
A recent study by the Canadian environmental firm, Hatfield Consultants, found dioxin levels in the blood of many Vietnamese citizens. They also found dioxin levels present in “soil, sediment and fish,” at levels 300 to 400 times above international standards. They reported an estimated 100,000 people still at risk for exposure to dioxin, resulting in potential health risks. A joint panel of U.S. and Vietnamese policymakers, scientists and citizens recently released a plan to clean up contaminated sites gradually over a 10-year period, urging the U.S. government to dedicate $30 million a year to “restore damaged ecosystems and clean up contaminated sites.” Efforts by the U.S. government however, have been relatively meager and limited only to approved U.S. veterans.
Blue Water Veterans Caught in a Loophole
There were a number of Vietnam veterans who served as part of the Navy or Coast Guard during the war, providing support for ground troops in the field of battle. Although these veterans did not spend time on dry land, they were still subject to Agent Orange exposure. The Institute of Medicine has promised to release the findings of a current study to determine a correlation between those who served offshore and diseases from such chemical exposure.
A January 2009 decision by the Supreme Court extended the policy that a Vietnam veteran must have served on land or inland waterways to receive compensation from exposure. This “boots on the ground” requirement has served to deny veterans of the “Blue Water” Navy and Coast Guard service compensation and benefits to treat life-threatening illnesses.
In a 2008 article on the ABC11 website in Raleigh, NC, called, “Loophole Frustrates Veterans,” Steve Daniels reported that the federal government estimated that more than 400,000 veterans were dying from illnesses related to Agent Orange.
Among the veterans interviewed for that report was Harry Spencer, a member of the “Blue Water” Navy who served on a ship right off the Vietnam coast of shorelines sprayed with Agent Orange. He is currently seriously ill, suffering from a deadly form of cancer called Chronic Empyhsemic Leukemia, which has been linked to Agent Orange and dioxin exposure.
"It's like getting a knife, in your heart. I mean I gave the Navy ten years of my life. And now they just, basically say that I don't exist anymore," said Spencer during the interview.
"Waiting for an Army to Die"
Wilcox accuses the government of waiting for an army to die, just as he titled his 1983 book. He believes there is no way to truly compensate for the damage done to every exposed veteran’s life cut short and the lives of their children as well.
“There is very little anyone can do now to prevent veterans from getting ill and dying prematurely from exposure to Agent Orange,” said Wilcox. “Chemicals like dioxin can wait 10, 20, or more years before they begin to undermine the immune system.”
Back in 1980, the state of New Jersey created its own commission to study the effects of Agent Orange exposure on veterans. Paul Sutton is a former director of the commission whose work was cut short by Governor Christie Todd Whitman in the early 1990s. The studies served to compare the dioxin levels in veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam with those who did not serve in Vietnam. The results were published in 1988 in the Journal of the American Medical Association but never truly utilized.
The herbicides that constituted Agent Orange were even used on national forests within the U.S. until 1978 when the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in. Spraying of the forests was suspended after reports of, “a threefold increase in miscarriages in women living near forests that had been sprayed.”
“There is no happy ending to this story,” concludes Wilcox. “It’s far too late to give our veterans the kind of welcome we should have given them thirty-five years ago.”
It is a race against time for a fading era of American heroes who served their country and feel they were poisoned by their government. It is a race against time for the Vietnamese people suffering from health conditions and birth defects. The U.S. government is left with a choice. It can accept responsibility and dedicate itself to all who suffered from the Agent Orange spraying campaigns, or it can wait for the end of an era. It can hope for the best that history will forget. The natural environment and the lives it gracefully sustains are in serious danger.
For Agent Orange investigator Fred Wilcox, justice is yet to be done. “The government can start by saying sorry,” he said.
About the Author
Daniel Savino is a student of Communication Arts, concentrating in print journalism. He is a passionate writer focused on utilizing his diverse skills, experiences and talents within various media outlets in the professional world to inform readers and expose truths through writing.