The Legacy of Agent Orange

By Paul Cox

I did not look out the window of the Freedom Bird as it lifted off from the Da Nang airport in 1970. I had been there 18 months mostly as a grunt in the Corps. I never wanted to see the place again. Didn’t want to think about it. Had come to despise the war. Was lucky to be leaving in one piece, and wanted to get on with life. 

Turns out it wasn’t that easy. The war ground on, and back in the States it was omnipresent—in the news, the music, and my nightmares. Even though I knew too much in my gut about war, I soon learned just how little really I knew about the War. Two weeks before shipping out to Vietnam, I located it for the first time on a globe at the Oceanside USO.  And, other than passing a few abandoned French forts during my tour, I hadn’t learned much else about its history or our involvement. So after returning home I read, then read some more. The Pentagon Papers was a revelation; Bernard Fall’s books were insightful and intense; GI Guinea Pigs was infuriating; etc. I learned from that last one that many people, many of them scientists, had believed even during the war that Agent Orange and other herbicides sprayed over large areas of the war zones weren’t, as we had been told, harmless to humans.

Within a few years of my getting out of the Corps, some of my Vietnam veteran friends began getting sick in strange and scary ways. Prostate cancer at the age of 29, heart attack at 34, brain tumor at 35, disabled children, and so on. Some died. Others live, but with crushed health. However, it was only after the success of Paul Reutershan’s 1978-1984 suit (which he did not live to see) against the chemical companies that I really began to understand what had been inflicted upon those of us who served in Vietnam. And that lousy settlement—spent and gone within ten years—did nothing for those veterans who got sick later. But it did set the stage for passage of Public Law 102-4 in 1991, which mandates that the VA provide care and compensation to veterans with illnesses related to our exposures to herbicides and dioxin. The law also required that the National Academy of Sciences conduct studies of available scientific literature and recommend which diseases in veterans are reasonably associated with AO exposure. The list of recognized disease has gradually grown from two in 1994 to fifteen currently, and continues to grow.  

Over the years several of my friends returned to Vietnam, either as tourists or in efforts to reconcile with our former enemies. Many told me that going back was a healing experience, but I did not want to revisit those ghosts and did not consider it. 

In 2004, a group of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange sued the chemical companies for the damage herbicides spraying inflicted on three million of their citizens, and due to remaining contamination, continues to sicken even 40 years after the spraying stopped.  The photos of deformed children that Phillip Jones Griffith put in his 2003 book, Agent Orange: “Collateral Damage” in Vietnam ripped at my heart.  When I was asked if I would help with the suit, I could not refuse. Not only are my fellow Vietnam veterans suffering from their exposure, but also the Vietnamese; not only are the children of veterans born with physical deformities and developmental problems, but also the Vietnamese born many years after the end of the war. 

Finally overcoming my hesitancy, I have made three trips to Vietnam since 2008, each time to investigate the extent of damage AO has inflicted on the Vietnamese. I have visited dozens of communities, large and small, spread over much of the country from north of Hanoi to Vung Tau, and have met with many victims of Agent Orange afflicted with a host of health problems. I have been to the A Luoi (A Shau) Valley and the Da Nang hotspots to see the effects these poisoned lands still have on the surrounding community. It ain’t pretty; nor were these trips fun and games.  But they were purposeful and therefore healing for me. The ghosts are still there, but they don’t chase around in my nightmares the way they used to. 

During my first trip back to Vietnam, we drove two hours east from Hanoi. We turned off the main road and drove down narrow lanes and rice paddy paths as far as we could; then we walked about a click to a concrete house sited between a paddy and a pond to visit a young woman, Duan Thi Dan, disabled from her father’s exposure. Our hosts were surprised that the gate was locked.  A neighbor came by and told us that farmer Duan Ton Tat was out in his fields, and went to fetch him. While Tat unlocked the gate, he informed us that his daughter Dan had died the week before. She had been born with physical deformities and mental retardation. Among her birth defects, her skin constantly peeled and cracked. After 27 years of pain and confusion, she had died of a skin infection.  As an 18 year old in 1968 who had never been out of his village, Tat was sent to the south where he survived seven years of war—a patriot doing what was required of him by his government. He returned home to the north in 1975 to twenty hard post-war years, but he got married and they had Dan in 1981. Her difficulties scared them away from having additional children, and her requirements for constant care meant that they remained poor. Now he is sick from his exposure and his only child is dead. What a tragedy. What a high price to pay for patriotism—on either side of the Pacific. 

This is an emergency. Agent Orange continues to destroy. So, what do we do? Do we sit around until we get old(er) and die? Do we educate ourselves so we can complain more eloquently? Do we take action? Is this a problem that will yield to action? Do we take action individually or band together?   

For my part, I continue to work on the Agent Orange issue, and have had a small role in creation of H.R. 2634, Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2011. This bill addresses the unmet needs of the children of Vietnam veterans, as well as Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans and their children. You can access it at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c112:H.R.2634:. The bill will retire without passing at the end of this Congressional session, but it will be reintroduced in both the House and Senate next year. I vote we take action.  You?

Paul Cox served as a Marine in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 and is a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He is on the national board of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign.

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