Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Agent Orange Legacy

By Katie Attinello
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. chose to implement herbicide spraying to obliterate heavy jungle foliage obscuring the American troops’ view and aiding the opposition’s ability to hide and utilize crops to feed their men. Among chemicals used was “Agent Orange,” dubbed thusly for the orange stripes that marked its storage drums. Its effectiveness and unexpected repercussions were devastating.
Over five decades since the chemical first rained down over the Vietnamese landscape and her residents, science and medicine are still working to identify exactly what Agent Orange does to harm the human body and the environment.

The findings are clear: Agent Orange causes severe health problems for both the living and the developing. How that occurs and to what extent is sometimes still difficult to pinpoint. Soldiers have most likely been exposed to many elements that can cause illness in their lifetimes, at home or abroad.

Yet, strong cases for the dangers of Agent Orange are still surfacing, urging scientists and doctors to continue working towards treatments and explanations for those affected. A creative non-fiction piece by writer Ben Quick, published five years ago in Orion Magazine, details the kind of far-reaching effects the chemical still has on the descendants of Vietnam veterans.

Quick writes boldly about his own birth: “…there was something else as well, something curious: although in every other way I fit the normal profile of a baby boy, my left hand was almost round, and at first glance, fingerless…one could see that there were indeed fingers in the flat bell of flesh and bone, but no space between them, and the bones were either misshapen or missing altogether.”

Quick’s father had served overseas during U.S. herbicidal operations, bringing home with him a little more than the inescapable psychological traumas of a soldier’s tour—“a rash that covered his back, raised hivelike splotches that didn’t go away for five years—until I was nearly three.”

The rest of Quick’s article details AO history and a brief part of his trip to see the retired warplanes that dispersed the chemical that literally made him. He admits to not knowing exactly what he hoped to find, suggesting the historical and psychological effects of this herbicidal disaster have seeped into the fabric of our nation’s identity and self-awareness.

The physical traumas of toxin exposure have been heavily reported on in this case, but journalism like Quick’s offers a slightly different perspective. How do we begin to accept the decisions of generations past, when those choices seem to have ignited and fueled a chemical lifestyle we cannot wholly give up today? And if the American descendants of this war are still coping with the ripple effect of Agent Orange, are the children and grandchildren of the Vietnamese experiencing the same, or worse?

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