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Agent Orange's Long, Brutal Reach

By Jan Barry

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Until a couple of years ago my health seemed pretty good for an old guy in his 70s. Then it fell apart. Now I'm disabled due to parkinsonism and other illnesses stemming from the war in Vietnam, which officially ended decades ago.

Parkinsonism is one of the latest diseases on the Department of Veterans Affairs Agent Orange disability list. It's related to Parkinson's Disease and increasingly affects military veterans. Identifying signs include severe balance and walking problems, memory loss, and confusion.

Making it worse, I got bushwhacked altogether by three Agent Orange diseases, nearly 60 years after I departed the Vietnam war zone. The other long-lurking illnesses that reared up are hypertension—just added to the Agent Orange list via the recently signed PACT Act, designed to aid veterans injured by burn pit smoke and other toxic substances—and peripheral neuropathy.

Basking in the golden years of senior citizenhood, I thought I'd been spared the fate of so many Vietnamese civilians and American war veterans whose health, and often lives, were destroyed by air and ground-sprayed toxic chemicals used to kill jungle foliage and rice farmers' crops in 1961-1972.

Thanks to unrelenting activism on this issue by veterans' groups and supporters, I'm getting VA assistance that was hard to get until recently. But I no longer can do the work I love. Medically sidelined last year, I taught college classes after a career as a news reporter. Having lived a very active life, including as an environmentalist and anti-war activist, I'm baffled by my new identity: disabled war veteran.

What seemed like standard aging problems popped up in the winter of 2019-20. I began struggling to walk, waddling like a duck with slow wobbly steps. A neurologist diagnosed peripheral neuropathy in my feet. A VA doctor concurred. Peripheral neuropathy is on the Agent Orange disability list, but with a Catch-22 provision that a GI must report the condition within a year of wartime service.

I served in an Army aviation unit in Vietnam from 1962-63. Treated at an Army field hospital for a broken collarbone, I never heard of peripheral neuropathy in those days. Healing from the collarbone injury, I spent the next year doing intensive training at the US Military Academy Prep School and West Point. Physically, I felt fine. Psychically, I questioned why we were warring on Vietnam and resigned from West Point.

After the Army, I enjoyed a fast-paced career as a journalist. Struck by reports of rare cancers some vets developed in their 20s and 30s, I did an investigative series carried by The Associated Press in 1980 on questions vets were raising about Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals used in Vietnam. I didn't think it affected me, as I didn't recall seeing or hearing about the secretive herbicide spraying operations.

Over the years, I've written periodic updates on the widening Agent Orange disaster. When Navy vets questioned whether they were poisoned by Agent Orange runoff reaching offshore ships, I realized I never considered if the contamination might have gotten into the groundwater that supplied US military bases. I flew in and out of many airfields, often staying overnight, eating and drinking at local Vietnamese bistros. Who worried about what was in the water in the middle of a war zone?

Nor had I thought about the times I caught rides on Air Force C-123s to go from one place to another. Then the story came out about stateside air crews getting Agent Orange diseases after flying in repurposed C-123s used by National Guard and Reserve units. But, as my health held up, I felt impervious to such possibilities, even as I wrote obituaries commemorating buddies who died of Agent Orange-related cancers.

Then, my luck ran out. Walking deteriorated to the point where I needed physical therapy to relearn how to walk. An MRI found evidence of three small strokes affecting various parts of my brain. I often couldn't remember the names of the food I was eating. My primary doctor reviewed the VA's Agent Orange listing and determined that my deteriorating health was due to parkinsonism.

Recently, I was rated 80 percent disabled by the VA due to parkinsonism and post-traumatic stress disorder. That determination provides medical coverage and a modest monthly payment to supplement my Social Security income. Bizarrely, PTSD was not acknowledged by the VA when Vietnam vets first raised concerns about recurring nightmares. Now the VA says PTSD and parkinsonism exacerbate each other.

When I first began seeking information about PTSD and Agent Orange, I was reasonably healthy but curious. I had no idea what would turn up. Who knows what else is yet to bubble up out of that disastrous use of chemical warfare?

Jan Barry is a poet and author. His books include A Citizen's Guide to Grassroots Campaigns and co editor of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. A co-founder of VVAW, he served in the US Army in Vietnam.

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