The “it” I am referring to is Agent Orange. It was used extensively in Vietnam and its consequences are devastating and far-reaching. The reason for my discussing Agent Orange is that a series of Town Hall Meetings was held last week in various locations in Western Oregon. “The Faces of Agent Orange” is the title of the program. My wife’s sister Nancy Switzer was one of the speakers for the forum. She is one of the founders and former President of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America (AVVA) and came all the way from Rochester, New York to Oregon. AVVA defines itself as “a non-profit membership organization dedicated to advancing the full range of issues affecting Vietnam Veterans, their families, and their communities.” Nancy invited my wife Sue, our daughter Michelle, and me to come to Lebanon for the forum. I might add that I thought I knew quite a bit about Agent Orange, but this gathering showed me just how much in the dark most of us are when it comes to this subject. “The Faces of Agent Orange” town hall meetings are sponsored by the AVVA and the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). This gathering was held at the River Center which is actually a church. Their pastor Lynn Koehn told me that one of the purposes of their church is to have their building available for the needs of the community such as this town hall meeting. The American Legion Color Guard started things off by presenting the colors. Everyone recited the Pledge of Allegiance and then the assembly that numbered about 250 were seated ready to get started.
The emcee for the night was Air Force veteran and former Director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs Jim Willis. He described the purpose of these gatherings is to get veterans and their families together with the medical community to find ways to improve the care given to the veterans, their children, and their grandchildren and to continue research into the effects of Agent Orange itself. Most people don’t realize, I know I didn’t, just how Agent Orange affects the veterans and through their genes passes on serious medical problems to their own children and then even the grandchildren.
Willis introduced the first panel member Mokie Pratt Porter, Director of Communications for the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), who has made 14 trips to Vietnam in an effort to discover as much as possible concerning where and when Agent Orange was used and who was affected by the chemical spray. She explained that as early as 1969 the government was working on the Agent Orange problem, but their emphasis was on how it affected the Vietnamese population not our troops. It took a lot of work to finally get the government interested in understanding how Agent Orange has affected the veterans and their families. As I mentioned earlier it was developed to defoliate the trees where the enemy was hiding and the trees surrounding our military compounds so that the enemy snipers wouldn’t have a place to hide within range of our troops. It is estimated that 11 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971. The most concentrated spraying in the year from July 1967 through July 1968. Ms. Porter described the veterans affected as “angry and motivated.” She is optimistic that they can win this battle, but they need the stories the veterans and their families have to tell concerning the myriad of ailments caused by this chemical exposure. They have held more than 70 town hall meetings so far throughout the country and plan to continue them until all of the veterans and their families have the information they need.
Two video presentations were shown and it was explained that the original formula for Agent Orange was tested and retested to make sure it would be of no harm to humans. The fly-in-the-ointment, if you will, was when the government wanted to drastically increase the production of the defoliant and the chemical company couldn’t keep up with the demand. As a result many other chemical companies were contracted to produce it. The problem was that each company made whatever modifications they wanted to the formula to suit their needs without any oversight. The result was that the toxicity of the new Agent Orange was completely unknown, but it was treated like the original formula and considered to be “safe.” So much for that assumption. You remember the old adage “if you assume you make an ass out of you and me.” Danielle Perry explained in one of the videos that she has multiple physical problems she believes developed as a result of her father’s exposure to the spray. He died from a heart attack at age 56. She also said that she carries “the weight of Vietnam on her shoulders” and she wasn’t even there.
Ken Holybee and his daughter Stephanie were up next. The troops were told that helicopters were spraying for mosquitoes in and around their camp. The spraying took place multiple times. As result not only was Ken affected but his daughter Stephanie explained that her children, the grandchildren of Ken who was the veteran, have extra bones in their ankles, one son is sterile, and one daughter has heart problems all of which are a result of Agent Orange exposure.
My sister-in-law Nancy Switzer came up to the microphone and explained that the veterans need to tell their families about what happened to them in Vietnam and especially when and where they were or might have been exposed to Agent Orange. She said she was here as “a wife, a mother and a grandmother.” Not only is she one of the founders of AVVA, but her husband Rick, a Vietnam vet, has been battling Prostate Cancer for years. Both of their children have physical problems as a result of Rick’s exposure. Their son has heart problems, their daughter has a learning disorder, and their granddaughter has a rare hip problem where her legs were outside of her hip joints when she was born. Nancy emphasized the importance of filing the proper claim forms to the government. She asked how many have filed a claim and hands went up. She then asked how many have not filed a claim and again many hands went up. She exclaimed twice “Shame on you.” In order for the government to understand what Agent Orange has done to them and their progeny they have to submit the proper paperwork, starting with their discharge papers, with as much documentation as possible. “Stop blaming yourself. You didn’t do it. The government did it” she said. Nancy developed a packet of forms called the “Paper Safe” which when completely filled out will give the veteran’s loved ones all the information they will need to receive the benefits they have earned.
The last member of the panel was John Rowan current VVA President who is serving his 4th term holding that office. He explained that he enlisted in the Air Force in 1965. John was in Vietnam for only 30 days from June to July 1967 and during that time the foliage at the edge of their base, where the guard towers were located, was sprayed with Agent Orange. He suffers from a heart condition among other problems. He pointed out that they need to research the old research to see the complete picture.
I heard some definitions of terms that were new to me, this one in particular. There is a difference between blue water and brown water Navy. Blue water means the ocean where sailors were on ships offshore. Brown water refers to inland waterways such as rivers and streams. It would be a given that anything sprayed on trees near a river would end up in the river, but rivers run into the ocean and that brown water can push miles out into the ocean to be sucked up by the pumps on a ship and stored in tanks to be treated and used for showers and even drinking water. That means everyone on a ship in that situation had been exposed to the toxin. They are working diligently to account for every ship that was involved in the exposures. It takes a lot of searching into the military records to get the details needed for just one person to prove they were on a particular ship at the time it was exposed to Agent Orange. There is a long list of illnesses that have been approved by the VA as Agent Orange related, but there are many left that still do not qualify. There is a Vets 101 website that guides you through the initial benefits process.
Currently there is bill before Congress, S1602, which if passed will provide funds for further research and to help find all of the affected veterans and pass the information on to their families. They urge everyone to call or write to your senator and tell them to pass the bill in spite of the fact that congress can’t agree on funding just about anything.
After their presentations the floor was opened to anyone who had a story to tell or questions that had not been answered yet by the panel. Hopefully those present will keep spreading the word to other veterans to encourage them to file a claim and discuss Agent Orange issues with their families.
If you are a veteran of any war or know one please let them know that all military personnel who were exposed to any toxin, whether it was Agent Orange or radiation, or something else, in Vietnam or somewhere else should file a claim right now with the government.
Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].