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Chemical Time Bomb in Vietnam Veterans: Defoliant Agent Orange Exposed


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Reprinted from the the Summer 1978 (Volume 8, Number 2) issue of The Veteran.

Ten million gallons of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant, were sprayed over Vietnam during the years 1962-1970; its purpose, according to the government, was to kill forests and vegetation that provided cover for Vietnamese forces.

The herbicide Agent Orange was created for use in Vietnam by combining two other herbicides—2, 4D and 2, 45T that have been around for years. Both contain a deadly poison called dioxin, which, for use in Vietnam, was concentrated 100 times more than in its regular form.

By 1970 the results of Agent Orange began to return. Not only did the defoliant have a devastating effect upon plants and wildlife in Vietnam but the effects on the Vietnamese people themselves shocked and outraged millions of people around the world. There were thousands of cases of birth defects or aborted births by mothers sprayed by Agent Orange. Added to this were the uncounted cases of sickness and disease of Vietnamese people who came in contact with the poison.

Many of us, while in Vietnam, rejected the common rumors that defoliants used by the US government contained an ingredient that was the same as thalidomide (a drug that caused a rash of birth defects all over the world) because it made good military "sense" to deform children—the children would then require extra care and extra people to provide the care, thus denying valuable personnel and resources from the battlefield.

Once the large variety of anti-personnel weapons and their uses became public knowledge, the idea no longer was far-fetched—the idea that the rich in this country who pushed the war and piled up their wealth from it would employ a horrible arsenal of weapons, including Agent Orange, to wipe out an entire race and culture in the name of the almighty dollar.

The effects and use of Agent Orange became more than another ugly memory for Vietnam veterans when, at the end of March, the Chicago CBS affiliate aired a TV program called "Agent Orange:Vietnam's Deadly Fog." It pointed out that the Chicago Veterans Administration was confronted with up to 27 cases of veterans with diseases directly related to exposure to Agent Orange, a fact they "conveniently" failed to inform the rest of us Vietnam vets about. In fact, a VA spokesman stated, " There is absolutely no evidence that Agent Orange can cause deaths and that this is borne out in a study by the Air Force." There it is folks! This chump says it's cool—forget it! But what about the flood of inquiries to the VA from Chicago area vets with some or all of the obvious symptoms of Agent Orange exposure: numbness of the fingers, reduced sex drive, skin rashes, excessive fatigue and nervousness, children with birth defects? The VA has continually stalled on treatment or even informing veterans around the country. But that's no new policy for the VA.

This Agent Orange exposure is just one more of a string of exposures in the past few months. We learned that dapsone, a malaria pill commonly used in Vietnam, was an experimental drug being tested on US troops without their knowledge and now found to cause cancer in rats. We learned that in the 1950's, US troops were used to test the effects of radiation during nuclear tests at the Nevada Atomic Test Grounds. Earlier than that, we found out that GIs were given powerful mindbenders like LSD or other hallucinogens without their knowledge and then filmed like rats. Many of the GIs were later confined to mental institutions or committed suicide as a result.

For years, VVAW has pointed to the way that veterans are used once and then thrown away with an inadequate GI Bill, high unemployment, bad VA healthcare. This latest report about Agent Orange underlines the "concern" of the US government for its military, for the men it send off to do its dirty work.

We are outraged that not only did the government send us off to fight and die for the profits of the rich, not only did they kill and maim hundreds of thousands of us in the process, but now we face the residual effects of Agent Orange including the possibility that our children may be born deformed. As one report put it, we may be carrying a "chemical time bomb" because the effects of Agent Orange can appear years after the individual was exposed.

VVAW and vets across the country aren't going to stand by and let them dump on us again. Within hours of the broadcast, vets in Chicago called a press conference to put out the feeling among vets about this new abuse and to demand VA action. On March 25th, at a Midwest Conference sponsored by VVAW on the problems and program for veterans, those attending came up with a plan of action to take the fight of Agent Orange back to the VA and to point at the class which was in fact responsible. Veterans demanded:

  1. The VA publicize the potential effects of Agent Orange to let all veterans know about the potential danger.
  2. The VA provide tests for all veterans who may have been exposed, and that vets' families be included in this testing.
  3. The VA or Pentagon (or what ever appropriate agency) contact the Vietnamese to see about getting all relevant information about the effects and treatment—the Vietnamese have been dealing with the problem for over 10 years.
  4. The VA provide treatment for the effects of the defoliant, that the symptoms be declared "service-connected," and that disability and/or compensation be paid to vets and their families.

Veterans in Chicago and Milwaukee, as well as other places, have mounted a campaign against the VA's non-treatment of Agent Orange including picket lines at the VA and organizing vets to demand treatment. The VA went into shock. Their reaction has ranged from "What you are saying is right and we're doing all we can," to "What are you talking about? We have no evidence of anything." Covering their image, they had the media film a VA worker filling out a form for a vet over the telephone. When vets called the announced number, however, there was no offer to take down the information, only a growled suggestion to come to the VA. Later, the VA began to put out a toll-free information number for vets to call—but a week and a half after the number was announced, it was still not in operation. The VA is in fact demonstrating that their "concern" for vets is exactly the same as that of the government which sent us off in the first place!

Along with the actions of veterans to force the VA to do its job, we are using other avenues to get out the word about Agent Orange and its effects. Veterans have filed suits under the Freedom of Information Act to force the VA to let out whatever information is available. In some cities veterans have gone to local TV stations to demand that they show the "Deadly Fog" film and thus publicize the effects of the defoliant.

One of the tasks before vets is to get the word out nationwide—about what Agent Orange did in the war and what it's doing to us. Veterans across the country—united—can stick a big fist in the face of the VA and their bosses demanding treatment for this poison, and decent healthcare for all veterans!

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