WASHINGTON – At age 19,Dan Wilson packed his bags and left St. Louis for the U.S. Army,and life as a soldier in Vietnam. It was a decision that would change his life.
Vietnam is a land known for jungles,but during his last eight months there,Wilson lived where there was nothing green at all.
“There was no grass,” he said. “There were several thousand acres of dust when it didn’t rain and mud when it did.”
Neither he nor his fellow soldiers knew they were living,eating and drinking in a toxic wasteland.
The area had been sprayed with Agent Orange,a weed killer used by U.S. forces in Vietnam to destroy the jungle that provided cover for enemies. It contained dioxin,a toxic agent that can cause reproduction problems,birth defects,cancer and other diseases.
Now 60,Wilson suffers from illnesses linked to his exposure to Agent Orange more than 40 years ago.
He lives with Type 2 diabetes and peripheral neuropathy,a painful condition that affects the nerve-endings.
“It starts with pain,then it’s a burning,then you lose all sensation,” he said.
He also lives with Agent Orange-related mental illness that often leaves him depressed and unable to work or drive.
Like Wilson,more than 400,000 U.S. veterans say they suffer from Agent Orange-related illnesses,and what’s worse to many is they don’t think they are getting the help they deserve.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs,approximately 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other equally or more harmful substances dubbed with the rainbow of names Agent White,Agent Purple,Agent Blue and Agent Pink were used in Vietnam over nine years. Out of the 3 million soldiers who served in Vietnam,nearly half were there during the heaviest spraying. Between 2 million and 4 million American soldiers and Vietnamese residents were sprayed with Agent Orange and other defoliants.
The diseases linked to herbicide exposure include prostate cancer,respiratory cancer,Type 2 diabetes,soft tissue sarcomas,peripheral neuropathy and more.
At a hearing May 15 before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs,experts and veterans urged the government to do more for the victims of the chemical’s poisonous legacy.
Richard Weidman,executive director for policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America, testified that the U.S. government is not doing enough to help American victims of Agent Orange.
“There’s not a single Agent Orange study being conducted by the VA,the Department of Defense,the EPA or the National Institutes of Health,” he said,in a phone interview Monday. “That can’t be an accident since the rest of the world is concerned with dioxin.”
However,Dr. Mark Brown,the VA’s director of the environmental agents service,said that is not true.
“It’s not fair to say we’re doing nothing,” he said.
Brown said the VA has spent millions of dollars on three studies that can be applied to Agent Orange victims. The first is an ongoing mortality study that tracks the rates at which veterans are dying as well as their causes of their deaths. The second is studying women veterans’ health. The third is a what is called a “dose reconstruction study” that will attempt to relate veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange to diseases later in life.
Weidman said these studies are flawed. He said the studies are looking only at those most directly exposed and not those who were exposed later through water and soil.
Weidman said that,without better research,there will continue to be insufficient scientific evidence to back up veterans’ claims.
“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.
Bob Haynes,59,of McHenry,Ill.,was exposed to Agent Orange during Army service in South Korea. The U.S. government sprayed Agent Orange along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in the 1960s when Haynes served there.
He retired from his job as an engineering manager at a large corporation in October 2006 because of health complications,including post traumatic stress syndrome.
“I have Type 2 diabetes,peripheral neuropathy and PTSD,” he said.
He is approved for benefits through the VA and helps other veterans get their claims through the department,but he said the process is daunting.
“I feel like it’s a waiting game with the VA and the Department of Defense. They deny claims and make you appeal and appeal and appeal,” he said. “They hope you die off so they don’t have to pay you.”
The VA contends that many veterans wait for help because of lapsed time between exposure and illness.
“Any time this much time has passed,it’s hard,” said Jim Benson,a department spokesman.
The legacy of Agent Orange exposure is not restricted to veterans who served in Southeast Asia. The effects can show up in the veterans’ children and grandchildren. Deformed and intellectually challenged children are born frequently in Vietnam,where people still live in Agent Orange-contaminated environments,but the children of American veterans also suffer the consequences.
“It destroys the genetic code,” said Mokie Porter,director of communications at the VVA.
Dioxin accumulates in fatty tissue,where it can stay for months or years. According to the World Health Organization,a developing fetus is most sensitive to dioxin exposure.
Linda May,60,of Clinton Township,Mich.,was married to “buck sergeant” Lawrence Shaffer,an Air Force mechanic who worked on planes that sprayed Agent Orange.
The couple had a son,Steven,in 1982,who was born with Cornelia de Lange syndrome. The disease,named after the Dutch pediatrician who first documented it,is a genetic disorder that affects both physical and intellectual development. Steven also had spina bifida,incomplete development of the spinal cord. Spina bifida is on the list of birth defects presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure; Cornelia de Lange syndrome is not.
“People whose parents were never in Vietnam developed Cornelia de Lange,but my pediatrician thought it was possible that he developed it because of exposure to dioxin,” she said.
May’s pediatrician was Edward Maliszewski,a special forces veteran of Vietnam who also had a doctorate in genetics.
“He wanted to do a study on the children of Vietnam veterans since he had so many of them in his practice and anecdotally observed a higher incidence of problems in them as opposed to children whose parents were not in Vietnam,” May said.
Maliszewski never got a chance to do the study. He died of diabetes complications at age 40.
Steven died in 1998.
May said she believes her son’s medical conditions were a result of his father’s exposure to dioxin.
“I do,absolutely – and there’s a good chance it causes miscarriages too,” she said,recounting women she saw miscarry during marriages to Vietnam veterans,who later had healthy babies after remarrying.
“Looking at the government’s response to Vietnam veterans’ children,it just makes me think they can’t admit that Agent Orange causes birth defects. It would cause a flood effect of people wanting compensation,” May said.
Some veterans,widows and their children are bringing attention to the experiences of Agent Orange victims through a project called the Quilt of Tears. Jennie Lefevre founded the project in 2000. Her husband,Gerald Lefevre,was a crew chief on a plane that sprayed dioxin. After his death from cancer,Jennie Lefevre made a quilt in his honor,and the project blossomed.
The Quilt of Tears is a traveling memorial of several bright orange quilts that feature patches in honor of those who have become sick or died from Agent Orange exposure. May made a patch for her son,Steven. Wilson also has a patch on one of the quilts.
Sheila and Henry Snyder took over the project as president and vice president after Jennie Lefevre’s death in 2004.
Henry Snyder was an Army recovery vehicle operator in Vietnam. He returned to the U.S. in 1969 after a year of service.
“When we got home,we started getting sick,” Snyder said.
He has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes,glaucoma and respiratory problems,all of which he thinks are linked to his exposure to the poisonous herbicide.
“We don’t hold the government responsible for using it,but they should have stepped up sooner and recognized the diseases. We would go back in the military if they asked us,but I think we’re getting too old,” he said,with a laugh.
Wilson said given the chance to do it all over again,he would.
“I would go back,because despite what my country has become,I still believe in it,” he said.
An Agent Orange quilt was on display in Washington over Memorial Day weekend. Click here to see the photo.
To learn more about Agent Orange,see the story “More about Agent Orange.”