AGENT ORANGE: THE TOXIC BATTLEFIELD COMES HOME, May/June 2012
SEARCHING FOR LEGISLATIVE REMEDIES
BY RICK WEIDMAN
A friend, a Vietnam veteran like me, perhaps said it best: “The government brought us back from Vietnam to CONUS, but only we can help each other finally get all of us home.” He was referring to the battles that so many of us have been engaged in ever since we came home. None of those struggles has been greater or more frustrating that the battle to uncover the truth about the toxic exposures endured by so many in Southeast Asia, in the waters of the South China Sea, on the Korean peninsula, Okinawa, Guam, and many other locations in the world where American armed forces served. Many of us are sick, others have died, and there are many children and grandchildren who will never be healthy because of the toxic exposures of their parents.
One can argue that a constitutional democracy should, as a matter of course, do complete epidemiological studies of all of its armed forces if there is any reason to suspect that they have been harmed by that service. The Australians have done three complete studies of their naval, air, and ground service personnel who served in or near Vietnam. That is how we in America discovered how the Blue Water Navy veterans were exposed, which was independently verified by the special review of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences last year. The desalinization units on Australian and American ships had the perverse effect of concentrating the dioxin that was contained in the herbicide mixed with kerosene or JP-4 fuel, thus keeping it on or near the surface many miles out to sea, where it was taken in by our warships to produce potable water.
American Vietnam veterans finally have an analogous study under way, thanks to friends in Congress and Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has forced the VA to contract the decade-delayed National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study. When completed, this study may be the closest thing we will have to a large-scale, statistically valid, epidemiological study of Vietnam-era military service members.
It has been forty years since the initial exposures, and yet the suffering of many is still neither recognized nor is medical care provided. What can we do about this? Fortunately, there is a great deal each of us can do.
On April 27, VVA commented on proposed regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency that would permit use of genetically modified seed that is resistant to 2,4-D (a component of Agent Orange). As representative of American veterans who “were lied to about their exposure to toxic chemicals which have claimed many lives long after our troops left Vietnam and Southeast Asia,” VVA urged the EPA not to deregulate the GM seed “until such a time as an adequate environmental impact statement is prepared.” VVA’s statement concluded: “Dow’s herbicide-resistant crop poses significant impact to many other food crops, biodiversity, and human health.”
Deregulation would not just be bad news for Vietnam veterans and our progeny because this additional exposure will add to the total body burden and impact of the previous exposures. It will also have an impact on the general population. We do not think it is just coincidence that the rate and numbers of children born with autism is at an all-time high in our nation.
Also on the administrative side, VVA will testify before the new panel that is being convened by the Institute of Medicine, pursuant to the Agent Orange Act of 1991. VVA staff will testify during the first public comment period in Washington, D.C., and Alan Oates, chair of the VVA Agent Orange and Other Toxic Exposures Committee, will be testifying at a hearing in Chicago later this summer.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 stipulates that the VA must contract with the IOM every two years to do a complete review of all research that might document health care problems that stem from exposure of veterans to herbicides during the Vietnam War. The IOM gathers a new panel of scientists every two years who come together and review all recent research studies in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals that may inform their recommendations to the VA Secretary regarding illnesses or conditions that may or should be declared service-connected presumptive.
VVA knows that many people who did not set foot on the ground in Vietnam also were exposed, most notably those sailors in the Blue Water Navy who served off the coast of Vietnam. There is good cause to believe that those who served as crew members of C-123 transport planes used in Vietnam for spraying missions in the Air Force Operation Ranch Hand also were exposed, because the planes never were decontaminated before they were converted for other uses back in the United States.
Much progress has been made in getting more conditions and illnesses added to the presumptive list in the twenty years since the Agent Orange Act of 1991 was enacted. Therefore, many have been helped with due Compensation & Pension payments and access to health care. However, much still remains to be done. There is cause for as much hope as there is cause for wringing of the hands. The more we work together, the more progress we will make toward getting access and health care for all who have been injured by these toxic exposures, particularly our children and grandchildren.
What can you do to help?
The first thing is to start educating your community and your members of Congress about the human toll that these exposures continue to wreak on Vietnam veterans and our families. Organize a town hall meeting to hear from veterans and their families in your area, and make sure your federal representatives or their staff members are there, as well as the local press. VVA’s Faces of Agent Orange campaign has been very successful in helping people understand the continuing costs of war. Go to the Faces of Agent Orange Facebook page and sign up yourself, and then sign up as many of your family, friends, and neighbors as possible.
Second, read all you can in The VVA Veteran about Agent Orange so you can be conversant with your members of Congress and their staff members. You do not have to be a scientist or an expert to advocate for your brothers and sisters and their families. You also can go here to learn more about Agent Orange, the Faces of Agent Orange campaign, and the impact on you, your family, and the families of other Vietnam veterans.
Third, there are several bills pending in Congress. The first is the Agent Orange Equity Act, HR 812, introduced by Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), which has sixty-five co-sponsors, and S1629, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), which has twelve co-sponsors. We hope to have additional legislation introduced this summer that we call the Agent Orange Veterans Family Preservation Act. It would authorize research into epigenetic damage due to herbicides and other toxins, and would provide for treatment of the sons and daughters of Vietnam veterans and our grandchildren who have birth defects or birth anomalies that damage their health.
Lastly, you can go to Cap Wiz in the Government Affairs section of www.vva.org and find model letters and a briefing sheet to send to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to the President, and to Congress asking that a significant proportion of existing research dollars be directed toward Agent Orange and other toxic exposures. Currently, the only study that we know of that will affect our overall knowledge about the effects of these exposures is the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study.
While there is much to be done, there is greater resolve than ever on the part of VVA, our members, other Vietnam veterans, and our families to finally secure Agent Orange health care benefits.
Rick Weidman is VVA’s Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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