Arby has been a professional writer and researcher for over 10 years, and her areas of interest are shamefully diverse.
What Is Agent Orange?
Agent Orange was the code-name given to a chemical defoliant used in mass-quantities during the Vietnam war. Its purpose was to kill off the dense jungle greenery that aided Viet Cong soldiers and hindered U.S. troops.
The VC were adept at using the jungles to hide in. It was their home turf and it was painfully obvious that their familiarity with the geography of the land served to their tactical advantage time and again. U.S. forces thought it made sense to dust the embattled jungles repeatedly with the chemical agent, stripping plant life to bare stalks and exposing the VC encampments.
Millions and millions of gallons of the stuff were blanketed across South Vietnam and a shroud still hangs, unshakable, on the shoulders of the country today. Horrific after-effects of exposure to AO cast a long-running plague on the people there, and it followed many American soldiers home.
My Personal Agent Orange Story
It's not quite fair to call it my story. It is the story of one man out of many who came home from the war only to die because of it years later. It is a story that belongs to his wife and his daughters.
I knew him as Uncle Pete. He wasn't my relation in the usual sense, but he was one of those family friends who was close enough that it just seemed perfectly normal to refer to him as "uncle." I was just a kid - probably around ten years old - when he died. The gravity of it was not fully known to me at the time, as my parents would keep those certain unspeakable details from me whenever possible. Details about what happens to a body losing a battle with a particularly nasty and prolific cancer.
Pete had served in Vietnam. I don't think he was in support of the war from a political standpoint, but he was drafted and he went. He did his time in the jungles alongside so many other men, many of whom fell and died there. Pete made it through his tour seemingly unscathed, and returned home ready to pick his life back up where he'd left it.
Pete started a family, and became the father of two sweet little girls. They were just a bit younger than me when he died. I don't know if it's better to lose someone suddenly, far away - or to watch them die slowly right before your eyes. I just remember that everyone knew it was coming; he was at the hospital 24/7 at the very end.
We drifted apart, I suppose, from Pete's family after his death. I would hear adults in my family talk about it from time to time. As I got older, I came to understand the sum of all the snippets of conversation I had heard through the years. They were certain the cancer that had ravaged the body of their good friend was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. He was a casualty of war as much as anyone who had died in battle.
Why Are People Still Dying From Agent Orange?
The problem with Agent Orange is that its ingredients form what is known as a dioxin. This is an umbrella term for a group of the worst environmental pollutants known to mankind. The first concrete information correlating this particular dioxin with detrimental health effects came for America in 1980 from a team of New Jersey medical researchers seeking answers for the epidemic of certain cancers rampant in Vietnam war veterans.
A few years later, some of these affected men and their families participated in a class action lawsuit against the makers of Agent Orange, including chemical giants Dow and Monsanto. The suit was settled out of court for around $180 million. Keep in mind that individual plaintiffs saw very small percentages of that amount.
The Passage of the Agent Orange Act
Within a couple years of my Uncle Pete's death, amid still-growing outrage from vets and their loved ones, congress passed the Agent Orange Act. This gave the Bureau of Veterans Affairs the ability to deem certain cases of cancer as being related to the patient's contact with the defoliant, giving such patients the right to receive some monetary compensation.
The Lasting Effects of Agent Orange
The Act also allowed for continued research into the problem. Through the years, the findings grew. And they were ugly. Scientists working on the project steadily came up with more and more diseases and conditions they believed to be directly related to AO exposure in Vietnam. Among them were a host of cancers including melanoma, lymphoma, prostate and respiratory cancers, sarcoma, and leukemia. More studies pointed toward the chemical having caused neurological conditions in some soldiers. Worse, the research found that these exposures seemed to be affecting the next generation; Agent Orange was making these soldiers' children sick, too.
An unusually high number of birth defects, predominantly spina bifida, was occurring among the children born to certain groups of Vietnam vets. Research teams reported to the government that they believed the jungle-dusting across the ocean in the 60s was causing grave birth defects in U.S. children born decades later.
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Another lawsuit was taken up on behalf of American soldiers exposed to Agent Orange, which garnered a substantially more sizable—and ongoing—form of compensation from the chemical manufacturers. Still, how does one become compensated for a life?
The US Government's Position on Agent Orange
The US government's position has been that while they acknowledge that Agent Orange has had negative health effects, this was something that came to light after the fact. Had they known that Agent Orange was, in fact, a dioxin back in the 1960s certainly they would not have administered it so liberally in Vietnam.
But whistle blowers have produced credible claims that government and military officials knew exactly what they were exposing their young men to. Did multi-million dollar contracts with colossal chemical corporations provide justification enough in some men's hearts to poison their own people?
The idea of ignoring human health and safety hazards so as not to hinder profit is nothing abnormal when it comes to chemical manufacturing giants, say some. Several former employees of the aforementioned companies have brought forth claims that they were unknowingly exposed to high levels of dioxin at work. One woman says that her child was born with heart abnormalities from her own contact with airborne toxins in her workplace. Her employer, at present, claims that any levels she might have been exposed to would have been so minute that they could not have caused her (or her baby) any harm. What do you think?
Unfortunately, it's no big surprise that the United States government may have put shady business deals above the well-being of its daughters & sons. Even now, with nothing about the Agent Orange mess resolved, a newer controversy brews over the use of depleted uranium in Iraq.
Gulf Vets Speak Out About Depleted Uranium
Other AO Devastations
The regions most affected by the United States' use of Agent Orange in Vietnam are toxified, ruined, dead. The people who live there still reap the unimaginable harvest of these events which unfolded so many years ago.
Entire villages exist where nearly every child born suffers birth defects the likes of which most westerners have never even imagined. Women whose fathers were directly exposed to the chemical now give birth to children who are severely deformed, deemed to be medical "monsters" by science. They suffer genetic mutations that exist outside of current understanding, the very code of life inside their little bodies jumbled past recognition by dioxin exposure.
It's not something anybody wants to think about. The truth remains that at this very moment, children suffering the ugliest ravages of AO are being born to mothers who themselves were not yet born during the time of the Vietnam war. How can this happen?
Like many environmental contaminants, dioxin continues to do its dirty work long after its initial application. Entire ecosystems in South Vietnam were decimated and are still far too polluted for new plant life to grow. The land is poisoned. The dioxin permeated everything; the soil, the water, the blood of the people.
Recently, tests were run on the breast milk of young mothers in these heavily affected areas. Over 1,000 PPT (parts per trillion) of dioxin was found in most of it. The World Health Organization tells us that it takes only 1 to 4 PPT to cause drastic deformities and fatality in infants. Mothers are feeding their children the poisoned milk borne of their own tainted blood. It is a human rights violation of a most severe degree.
And we have all but turned a blind eye.
Way back in the early seventies, President Nixon promised billions in aid to the victims of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. This was never followed through on.
Many sufferers and advocates have valiantly fought to help these victims of such unimaginable atrocity. Relief houses have been set up, and doctors have volunteered their time but it is not enough. Grand-scale effort must be taken to even begin to repair what has been done here. What is still happening.
The following photos are heart breaking, but they are real. These children are casualties of their grandfathers' war.
I'm not including any images of the children who continue to be born with devastating birth defect in Vietnam. Not because there aren't any. A quick Google search will reveal plenty of visual evidence of the continued destruction wrought by Agent Orange.
Losing one's child, at any point in life and from any cause, is horrendous beyond my comprehension. For entire families and villages to lose child after child at the hands of something so unfortunate - so unjust - is that horror quantified.
That is all I will say about those dear souls as the point here is not to be gratuitous, but to bring attention to them for the sake of moving forward in some good way.
There are groups who are trying to help, providing advocacy or funding for treatment, research, and environmental cleanup. These things are heartening, and should be celebrated and supported where possible so as not to dwell in the negative.
Just don't forget them, the children, the soldiers - everyone affected by Agent Orange. Keep them in your thoughts, pray for them if you believe in prayer. Any good intention directed their way may generate ideas, which can lead to real change.
People Who Are Helping
- Advocacy and Exchange Program on Agent Orange | The Aspen Institute
The Aspen Institute facilitates communication and resolution and have helped advocate for victims.
- Vietnam Agent Orange Campaign | Home
Today, three million Vietnamese suffer the effects of chemical defoliants used by the United States during the Vietnam War. The deadliest, Agent Orange, disabled and sickened soldiers, civilians and several generations of their offspring on two conti
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2009 Arby Bourne