VVAW: Vietnam Veterans Against the War
About VVAW
Contact Us
Image Gallery
Upcoming Events
Vet Resources
VVAW Store


Page 6
Download PDF of this full issue: v9n2.pdf (9.7 MB)

<< 5. Amnesty and Discharges7. Veterans' History: The Rank & File's Story >>

Defoliant Agent Orange: Chemical Time Bomb in Vietnam Veterans


[Printer-Friendly Version]

Many of us who were in Vietnam came back home to discover we had new problems. Of course we had the problems of lousy benefits and bad head trips that came as a result of fighting a war where we shouldn't have been. At least for these things we had some idea of what the cause was.

But new problems came, and we didn't know where they came from. These were physical problems: physical problems that didn't exist before Vietnam and didn't exist among other people our age who hadn't been in Vietnam. Some Vietnam vets were finding that their kids were being born with 6 fingers or deformed feet. A woman civilian worker in Vietnam was having spontaneous abortions. Vets had skin rashes they didn't have before. Many had liver cancer; some died. Vets mysteriously were afflicted with nervousness and fatigue.

Light was shed on why these problems existed in March, 1978. A V.A. worker in Chicago, Maude De Victor, discovered that the vets she worked with, who had these problems, had something in common. While in the ?Nam they had been exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange.

Agent Orange had been used in Vietnam to clear out the jungle in order to destroy the sanctuaries of the Vietnamese liberation fighters. The defoliant was sprayed from planes, and while it hit the jungle, it also hit Vietnamese civilians, and Vietnamese and American soldiers in the area. Reports from Vietnam about the problems that Vietnamese civilians were having had long been dismissed as Communist propaganda. But it was not propaganda as many vets can attest.

Agent Orange contains the poison dioxin which is a major cause of the problem. Dioxin is the stuff that filled the air in Sevaso, Italy, when a plant which manufactured the stuff exploded. Workers at the plant were killed, and workers in the clean--up crew died from their exposure. All the animal life in the area died, and now, no one is allowed in the area.

This is the stuff that Vietnam vets were exposed to. When the story broke, on a CBS Special, VVAW began a series of demonstrations demanding that the V.A. and Defense Department notify all vets who may have been exposed, provide testing, treatment and disability payments for all who were exposed to Agent Orange. Environmental groups also took up the fight (Agent Orange, in a domestic version, had been used for years on forests and crop lands, and the fight to get the Environmental Protection Agency to ban its use had begun years earlier.)

Of course, the V.A. moved slowly on the issue. At first they refused to recognize the problems. Then they said that it may have affected a limited number of vets. (Of course it will cost them bucks to deal with the problem.) Since then, A Vietnam vet in New York, Paul Reutersham, waged a campaign to get 100% disability for his Agent Orange caused liver cancer. In a well publicized campaign, he won the disability just before he died.

Things have begun to move. The Environmental Protection Agency banned use of one of the main ingredients in Agent Orange. Lawyers have sued the chemical companies which produced dioxin in behalf of Reutersham's family and on behalf of three veterans in Chicago. The suit demands that the chemical companies set up a fund to reimburse the V.A. and other appropriate agencies for the expenses of dealing with the victims of the defoliant; estimates set the possible fund as high as $4.2 billion. Scientists and medical experts are conducting tests to learn more about dioxin poisoning. Agent Orange Victims international was formed. And while there is, as yet, no solution to the physical problems facing many Agent Orange victims, millions of veterans now at least know the probable cause of their problems.

Recently, Representative Bennett Stewart requested a General Accounting Office study on Agent Orange. The GAO did the study and found that while long term effects were not known, there was every indication that Vietnam vet s were suffering from long-term effects of dioxin. The GAP concluded that the Defense Department should survey Vietnam vets to identify those who may suffer long-term effect1 from Agent Orange. If these recommendations are followed up on it could mean that the Defense Department would begin to correlate their tapes which could point out, first, where Agent Orange was sprayed and, second, what units (and what individuals) were in those areas during that period of time. As WAW said when we began the campaign to obtain testing and treatment for Agent Orange, it's the responsibility of the government which sent us off to Vietnam in the first place to let veterans know they may be victims. Too long has the V.A. used the tactic of shoving the burden on the vet to prove that he or she was exposed.

The Defense Department and the V.A. both claim that they don't know enough to act. Either they do know enough and are trying to cover it up, or they aren't trying to know enough. It's just like the 1950's when vets were used as guinea pigs in radiation experiments. The government took so long to reveal their information because it would have cost them some bucks spent on treatment--and because they didn't want it generally known how this country treats its soldiers.

The V.A. claims ignorance, but public pressure and the insistence of veterans has forced them to begin to act. They claim they are working on it, but what they have done is to hire Dr Holder to advise them on testing for Agent Orange exposure. Dr Holder works for Dow Chemical Company; Dow is one of the companies being sued as a result of its production of dioxin---which it fervently claims is harmless!

To show its concern for the problems of vets exposed to Agent Orange, the V.A. in Chicago transferred Maude De Victor (the V.A. worker who broke the story in the first place) to the V.A.'s version of Siberia where she now deals with home loans. And a "blue-ribbon" panel of experts which will advise the government on Agent Orange does not have one scientist on it who has stated his suspicions of Agent Orange, though once again Dow Chemical is amply represented.

In other words, it took a lot of effort to get the V.A. to move in the first place. Now it's going to take a whole lot more to get them to move off first base.

<< 5. Amnesty and Discharges7. Veterans' History: The Rank & File's Story >>