by David Cline, VAORRC
Severe health problems associated with the U.S. military’s use of chemical defoliants during the Vietnam War have long been an issue of concern for the veteran’s community. These chemical weapons, popularly known as Agent Orange, were heavily contaminated with dioxin, TCDD, one of the most deadly cancer causing carcinogens known to man.
Over many years, Vietnam veterans who began to get sick, have birth defected children and often died, have struggled to have the Veterans Administration provide testing, treatment and compensation for those affected.
Photo: American veterans delegation (l-r) David Cline, Ralph Steele, Joan Duffy, Frank Corcoran and Dan Shea behind “Mrs. Vietnam 2005”, Doan Thi Kim Hong, performing songs for Agent Orange affected children at hospice near Cu Chi.
This struggle began in the 1970’s and went through many twists and turns as the companies who manufactured these chemical weapons and the US government who ordered and deployed them, tried to deny any responsibility and even claimed that they were harmless.
Eventually in 1984, the chemical companies who manufactured Agent Orange agreed to pay $180 million in damages to veterans and finally Congress passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991recognizing the negative health effects of these defoliants and acknowledging certain conditions for VA medical treatment and disability compensation..
Since that time, more conditions have been acknowledged but many others are still not recognized.
There have been lawsuits also from veterans who served in the South Korean, Australian and New Zealand militaries under the US command.
But one group, the largest number affected, who have never received any form of Justice have been the people of Vietnam, both NVA/VC and ARVN soldiers and many times more civilians who were trapped in the war zones.
In 2004, the suffering Vietnamese formed the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) and initiated a lawsuit in the US courts against the companies who manufactured these poisonous chemical weapons. That case is schedule to be heard in a federal appealate court in NYC this fall.
In support of the Vietnamese victims, we have formed the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign and are working with them and other Agent Orange victims throughout the world to continue this struggle until all those affected receive some Justice.
At the end of March, I lead a delegation of four other US veterans who are Agent Orange victims, Joan Duffy, Ralph Steele, Dan Shea and Frank Corcoran, to Hanoi for an International Conference on AO, that included participates from Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Canada as well as support groups from France, England and several other European countries.
After that we travelled to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Cu Chi and Hue were we were hosted by VAVA chapters and met with victims and visited hospices and friendship villages where some of the many thousands of the most seriously deformed AO children are cared for, some run by international veterans support, religious organizations or local governments and hospitals.
This issue is an ongoing and unresolved legacy of the US war in Vietnam and is something that needs to be addressed and resolved if we are even going to heal the wounds of that period in our nation’s history.
To find out more about and get involved in the campaign here in the United States, contact the:
VIETNAM AGENT ORANGE RELIEF & RESPONSIBILITY CAMPAIGN
P.O. BOX 303, Prince Station,
New York, NY 10012
or visit the web site at www.vn-agentorange.org
U.S. Air Force Nurse Joan Duffy addresses International Conference in Vietnam in March 2006. Joan died on Nov. 17, 2006 from Agent Orange related cancer. RIP
Speech given by Joan (Newberry) Duffy to the International Conference of Victims of Agent Orange/dioxin held in Hanoi, Vietnam on March 28-29, 2006.
Today, I will be speaking to you about one of the most devastating materials that the United States military ever used: I am, of course, referring to Agent Orange which contained the highly toxic contaminant, dioxin. The use of Agent Orange in Vietnam produced unacceptable threats to life, violated international law, and created toxic wastelands that continued to kill and injure civilian populations long after the war was over. Agent Orange was a true weapon of mass destruction and its use should be considered a crime against humanity.
Before I begin my presentation, I would like to tell you a little bit about myself…. I was commissioned a 2/LT in the United States Air Force Nurse Corps shortly after graduating from college. I was sent to a large military base called Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam a year later. While there, I was too busy to notice that I never heard a bird sing, and in fact, the only living things I remember seeing (other than people) were roaches: not too reassuring considering that roaches were reported to be the first things to crawl out from under the rubble at Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atom bombs were dropped. At the hospital where I worked, there was a brick wall outside the emergency room that was covered in dead vines. I learned years later that the perimeter of Cam Ranh Bay was sprayed with Agent Orange on a regular basis because it was considered such an important military installation. Like most Vietnam Veterans, I knew nothing about Agent Orange until years later when I read about veterans with health problems who had begun to make the connection between Agent Orange exposure and illness.
So how did this tragedy of Agent Orange begin?
During World War II, Prof Kraus, Chairman of the Department of Botany at the University of Chicago, discovered that a chemical named 2,4 D could kill vegetation within 24-48 hours by causing plants to experience sudden, uncontrolled growth. Thinking this discovery might be of some use in the war effort, Kraus contacted the War Department, but Army scientists were not interested in it at that time.
Civilian scientists, however, found Kraus’ discovery to be of use in everyday life after the war.
Chemical sprays that included 2,4 D were put on the market for use in controlling weeds in yards and along roads and railroads.
The US Army continued to experiment with 2,4 D during the 1950’s and late in the decade, they found that mixing it with another chemical resulted in the creation of an herbicide that had an almost immediate toxic effect on foliage. What they didn’t realize or what they chose to ignore, was that the second chemical, 2,4,5 T, contained dioxin, a molecule that the US Environmental Protection Agency would later call one of the most potentially dangerous known to man. The toxicity of dioxin is such that it is capable of killing newborn mammals and fish at levels as small as 5 parts per trillion (or one ounce in 6 million tons). It’s toxic properties are enhanced by the fact that it can enter the body through the skin, the lungs, or through the mouth. Once inside the body, dioxin rapidly binds to protein molecules in the cell membranes called receptors: the job of these receptors is to move substances into the cells. By binding with these receptors, dioxin is rapidly transported into the cytoplasm and nucleus of the cell where it then wreaks havoc for years to come. Dioxin literally modifies the functioning and genetic mechanism of the cell and affects a wide range of organ and metabolic functions. It is a potent multi-system poison that is virtually indestructible in most environments. One of the most dangerous characteristics is that dioxin is not water soluble, making it almost impossible to excrete: if it were water soluble, it could be excreted in the urine and perspiration. However, because dioxin crosses the placental barrier, levels of dioxin in pregnant women are reduced, sadly for the unborn baby. In laboratory animals, dioxin has been shown to cause cancer, birth defects and genetic damage.
Considering how toxic dioxin is, it is truly shocking that after extremely minimal experimentation, Agent Orange and other herbicides were shipped to Vietnam in 1961 to aid in anti guerilla efforts. These herbicides were used to destroy food sources and eliminate foliage that concealed enemy troop movements. On January 13, 1962, 3 United States Air Force planes left Tan Son Nhut’s airfield to begin Operation Ranch Hand to defoliate portions of South Vietnam’s heavily forested countryside. Nine months later, by Sept 1962, the spraying program had intensified, resulting in the defoliation of almost 9000 acres of mangrove forests. Over the next 9 years, an estimated 19 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed throughout Vietnam at a rate 6 to 25 times that suggested by the chemical manufacturers. The results of the spraying was there for all to see: over the door of the ready room for Ranch Hand pilots at Tan Son Nhut’s Airport in Saigon hung a sign that said “Only you can prevent forests”.
Unfortunately, the Agent Orange used in Vietnam was much more highly contaminated with dioxin than that used in the United States. This was the direct result of the US military pressuring the chemical manufacturers to speed up production of Agent O range because the military was using ever increasing quantities of the herbicide, practically with abandon. In an effort to work faster and increase production of Agent Orange, the chemical companies paid little attention to quality control issues and the Agent Orange destined for Vietnam became much more highly contaminated with dioxin as the result of sloppy, hasty manufacturing.
Unknown to the millions of American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians being exposed to the herbicides, the chemical manufacturers were well aware of the long term toxic effects, but they sought to suppress the information from the government and the public, fearing a negative backlash. Of particular concern to the chemical companies was Agent Orange which contained dioxin. Publicly they maintained that dioxin occurred naturally in the environment and was not harmful to humans.
Privately they knew otherwise, as evidenced by scientists involved in Operation Ranch Hand and documents uncovered recently in the US National Archives which paint a disturbing picture. There are strong indications that not only were the military officials aware as early as 1967 of the limited efficacy of chemical defoliation, they also knew of the potential long term health risks of frequent spraying and they sought to keep that information from the public. Dr, James Clary was an Air Force scientist in Vietnam who helped to write the history of Operation Ranch Hand. Clary wrote in a 1988 letter to a member of congress investigating Agent Orange that
“we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in Agent Orange. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version due to the speed of manufacture . However because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”
While the debate over the danger of Agent Orange and dioxin heated up in scientific circles, the United States Air Force continued flying defoliation sorties. People on the ground continued to live in a mist of toxic herbicides. They slept with it, drank it in their water, ate it in their food, breathed it in their lungs, absorbed it through their skin. Some of the US troops used the empty Agent Orange drums as barbeques: others stored food in them. Still others rigged the residue- laden drums for showers.
Finally in 1971, the US Surgeon General prohibited the use of Agent Orange for home use and on June 30, 1971, all US defoliation efforts in Vietnam were terminated.
As veterans attempted to settle back into civilian life, some of them began to develop unusual health problems. There were skin and liver diseases and what appeared to be an abnormal number of cancers to soft tissue organs such as the lungs and stomach. There also seemed to be an unusually high number of birth defects among children born to Vietnam Veterans. Some veterans experienced wild mood swings while others developed a painful skin condition called cloracne. Many of these veterans were found to have high levels of dioxin in their blood., but scientists, doctors and the United States government insisted that there was no link between their illnesses and their exposure to Agent Orange.
By the early 1980’s, the denials of the US Government, the Veterans Administration, the US military and the chemical companies regarding Agent Orange/dioxin toxicity began to fall apart as communities such as Times Beach, Missouri entered the public eye. Times Beach, Missouri was an idyllic little community about 20 miles from St Louis. Unknown to the residents of Times Beach, dioxin-laced oil had been sprayed on the town’s roads to keep the dust down during the 1970s. The contamination was so bad that the government decided that the only way to save the town’s residents from further damage was to buy them out and move them out. In early 1983, the US government spent $33 million buying the homes and businesses in Times Beach and relocating its 2200 residents. Three years later, in 1986, the Centers for Disease Control released a report that showed that mobile home residents located near Times Beach, were suffering liver and immune system damage as a result of their exposure to the dioxin-laced oil that had been sprayed on the dirt roads in 1971. Times Beach remains a ghost town even today because of dioxin contamination. Other towns and cities became contaminated as a result of chemical spills or manufacturing emissions: some of them needed to be evacuated like Times Beach. Love Canal in Niagra Falls, New York, Sevesco, Italy, Pensacola, Florida, and the entire city of Midland, Michigan have very high levels of dioxin. While the government was paying off residents of Times Beach because of dioxin contamination, it continued to deny that Vietnam Veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange and dioxin were at risk.
All in all, many entities conspired to keep the truth about Agent Orange and dioxin covered up: the Centers for Disease Control, scientists, chemical companies, The White House, the Veterans Administration, the US military, especially the United States Air Force. In the end, the truth won out. The Veterans Administration has been forced to admit that Agent Orange exposure/dioxin exposure causes a multitude of health problems for which they must compensate veterans. These conditions include: cancers such as leukemia, soft tissue sarcoma, cancers of the lung, larynx, bronchus, trachea, prostate, lymphomas, myeloma, Hodgkins and non Hodgkins lymphoma. Other conditions for which veterans are compensated are: nervous system disorders such as neuropathy and sensory impairment, metabolic disorders such as Type II diabetes, liver and kidney damage, skin problems such as cloracne, The Veterans Administration also must compensate veterans’ children who suffer from mutations and birth defects such as spina bifida and other neural tube defects, cleft palates, hydrocephalus, esophageal and intestinal deformities, clubfoot, fused fingers and toes, and congenital heart disease.
Agent Orange is NOT a conventional weapon: it is, instead, a weapon of mass destruction. All international law on warfare for the past 100 years has attempted to limit violence to combatants and to prevent the use of cruel and unfocused weapons. International agreements and conventions have tried to protect civilians and non-combatants from the scourge of war, to outlaw the destruction of the environment and to protect the food supply in order to safeguard life on this earth. Agent Orange is precisely the kind of weapon prohibited by international law for more than a century because of its unconfined, death-dealing effects.
Surely it must be clear to any thinking human being that we can no longer afford to seek violent solutions to the world’s problems because our weapons have become so dangerous and toxic that they kill soldiers and civilians both during the war and for years and years after the war is supposedly over. I urge you as fellow human beings to seek justice for the victims of Agent Orange.
I implore you to do this for the sake of Vietnam’s children and grandchildren, but also for the sake of the world’s children and grandchildren. What we do now, here, to seek justice for the victims of Agent Orange could very well establish an international precedent that will hold governments and corporations responsible and accountable for their actions and protect future generations from the horror of such weapons.
Some of the children being cared for at Cu Chi facility run by the Catholic Church. These children are a continuing legacy of the use of chemical weapons by the U.S.
Speech given by David Cline to the International Conference of Agent Orange Victims.
First let me thank the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin for organizing this international conference and to the Agent Orange Vets from Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada who have traveled here to participate.
The US delegation I am leading is made up of Agent Orange vets Frank Corcoran, Joan Duffy, Ralph Steele and Dan Shea.
I was an infantryman with the 25th Infantry Division in Cu Chi and Tay Ninh in 1967 and was wounded 3 times but do not suffer from dioxin related health conditions myself.
When I came back from the war, I had knowledge of the use of Agent Orange from having seen sprayed areas and knew that they destroyed nature, but had no knowledge of the negative effects these defoliants had on human beings.
I remember in 1969 a veteran I knew named Jeff Sharlett died of cancer at age 27 in the Miami, Florida Veterans Hospital and thinking it was strange that someone so young had cancer.
Over the years other friends of mine got sick or had deformed children or sometimes died. Mike Keegan and John Miffin who died and John and Rena Kopystenski who had several children with birth defects are among them. So this issue has always been personal to me.
In 1977, a woman who worked as a claims representative at the Chicago Veterans Administration named Maude DeVictor was the first person to really put two and two together when she witnessed the VA higher-ups denying veterans claims and covering up their health problems and the connections to dixon exposure.
The next year, 1978, a veteran named Paul Reutershan who was sick with cancer got on television and said “my government killed me in Vietnam and I didn’t even know it”. He began a lawsuit against the chemical companies who manufactured Agent Orange, Blue, White, Purple etc. but he never lived to see that lawsuit completed because he died within the year.
The reason that this lawsuit was started was because the VA was denying veterans claims for medical treatment and compensation and according to US law (the Feres Doctrine), former military personell cannot sue the government for these type of claims.
From 1978-1984 the lawsuit continued and was eventually settled, although many veterans opposed the settlement, for 180 million dollars. Sadly many veterans got very little of that money since the army of lawyers who got involved got a good portion of it in legal fees.
I have been a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War since 1970 and that organization played a critical role in launching the movement for justice for Agent Orange vets, supporting Maude Devictor who became the godmother of the movement, recruiting veterans to joining the lawsuit and raising general public awareness of this issue.
But we always believed that while the chemical companies had responsibility and should be held liable, the primary responsibility lay with the US government which ordered and continued to use these poisons after they were aware of the negative effects on people. Instead of changing course, they covered up the facts and kept using them until 1971. After that they gave their remaining supplies to the former Army of the Republic of Vietnam who continued to use them until 1975 when that regime ceased to exist.
In VVAW, our demand has always been Testing, Treatment and Compensation for Agent Orange Victims. We never thought the lawsuit against the chemical companies was the answer, but rather a way to continue putting pressure on the US government.
Finally progress was made on that front when in 1991, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, acknowledging several conditions as being dioxin related for purposes of medical treatment and disability compensation. It also established a mechanism for the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine to review new studies and make recommendations to the Secretary of the Veterans Administration for expanding the recognized conditions.
Currently there are thirteen conditions acknowledged by the VA including two conditions among veterans children but over 27 conditions have been rejected since there was a finding by the IOM of not enough scientific research to indicate a connection to dioxin exposure.
So many veterans are still not being treated with any fairness. And how does someone give justice to all those who have died? The hidden casualties of the Vietnam War continue to grow but the struggle continues as well.
And today we need to talk about the other side of the coin, not just American, Korean, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian veterans but the people of Vietnam as well.
Remember also that these chemicals were also used in parts of Cambodia and Laos as well as along the DMZ in Korea and in Panama.
In the United States we began the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility campaign to support the efforts of VAVA and join with concerned veterans and people, in the U.S. and other countries to demand Justice for ALL Agent Orange Victims!
While the Campaign is sponsored by Veterans For Peace, it is made up of war veterans, Vietnamese-Americans, peace and labor activists, environmentalists and other friends of Vietnam. We are supporting the international petition drive in support of the VAVA lawsuit and recently sponsored a 10 city speaking tour by 4 VAVA members.
We are also planning to encourage sympathetic representatives and senators to introduce legislation in Congress for the US government to step up to the plate and provide compensation and medical assistance, if not for political reasons, then for moral and humanitarian purposes. It is time to really heal the wounds of that war, not to ignore them or let them fade into history.
Let me make on last point. This is a struggle to expose and end the use of chemical weapons by all nations but especially by my government. This is not just about something that happened over 30 years ago. Today the Bush administration has led our country into another war, this time in Iraq and has used Depleted Uranium weapons that will poison US troops and Iraqi citizens. They have also used White Phosphorous bombs against whole cities like Fallujah.
It is time for humanity to demand an end to these weapons as part of our efforts to abolish war. That is what Veterans For Peace is pledged to work for. That will only come through the determined efforts of all of us, throughout the world.
The great American abolitionist Fredrick Douglass once said:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without the thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will”
With that as our watchword, lets make this conference a call to all the people of the world. JUSTICE FOR ALL AGENT ORANGE VICTIMS!
FINAL APPEAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE OF VICTIMS OF AGENT ORANGE/DIOXIN
We victims of Agent Orange/dioxin and other toxic chemicals, together with supporters and scientists from the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand, Russia, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, and Vietnam participating in the International Conference on Victims of Agent Orange/dioxin held in Hanoi, Vietnam on March 28th and 29th 2006, make the following appeal to the international community:
We have discussed the effects of Agent Orange contaminated with dioxin and other toxic chemicals on human life and health, and the sufferings of those affected. Based on this
exchange of views, we unanimously confirm the following:
During the war waged in Vietnam, the US chemical companies manufactured and supplied millions of liters of toxic chemicals disguised as defoliants or herbicides. Those chemicals contained high levels of dioxin. They were an utterly lethal substance.
Those toxic chemicals destroyed the environment, millions of acres of forests, leading to an imbalanced ecology, great loss of timber resources and the disappearance of several animal species as well as precious forest vegetation. As a consequence, natural disasters such as flood, erosion and drought have become more common and impacted severely on agriculture, the main source of subsistence for South Vietnamese residents.
However, the worst effect of those toxic chemicals is the harm to human life and health of those exposed to them. Victims of Agent Orange/dioxin and other toxic chemicals consist of:
- Millions of Vietnamese living in their homes and members of the liberation armed forces, and those working for the former Saigon regime and armed forces, an ally of the US at that time.
- Various investigations and scientific studies (frequently with participation of foreign and American scientists) have demonstrated that Vietnamese victims have suffered a variety of serious diseases – even far more and worse than the dioxin-related diseases listed by the US National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine between 1994 and 1995. In addition, many female victims have experienced reproductive problems. Many of them have been deprived of the ability to bear children and to experience the joy of being a mother.
- The most painful effect, however, is that Agent Orange/dioxin has already harmed the next generation of children and will do the same to the following ones. Many children have been born without the experience of war but have deformed bodies and can never enjoy the simplest experience of happiness – that is to live as an ordinary human being
For the above-said reasons, victims of Agent Orange/dioxin and their families are among the poorest and most unhappy of the society. Many thousands of victims have died without justice for themselves and their families.