Saturday, June 4, 2016
What was it?
Agent Orange was a herbicide and defoliant used in Vietnam, from 1962 to 1971, to remove tropical foliage that provided enemy cover. The U.S. military sprayed a “rainbow” of various herbicides during the war, but Agent Orange was used the most.
Why the name?
It came from the orange identifying stripe used on the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored.
Which veterans were exposed?
Any veteran who served anywhere in Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, for the purposes of VA compensation benefits. Also eligible: those who served at military bases in Thailand, 1961-75; served along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, 1968-71; or had regular contact with contaminated C-123 aircraft during or after the war.
Which diseases and health conditions have been linked to it?
The VA recognizes these presumptive diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides:
» chloracne, a disfiguring skin condition
» non-Hodgkin lymphoma
» soft-tissue sarcoma
» Hodgkin lymphoma
» chronic lymphocytic leukemia
» chronic B-cell leukemias
» respiratory cancers of the lung, bronchus, larynx or trachea
» prostate cancer
» multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow
» porphyria cutanea tarda, a disease that causes skin to blister
» early-onset peripheral neuropathy
» ischemic heart disease
» Parkinson’s disease
» AL amyloidosis
» Type 2 diabetes
» Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
» spina bifida in the children of veterans
» several birth defects in the children of female veterans
What benefits do veterans get?
Veterans can receive medical treatment for those conditions, as well as disability compensation.
What about their children?
With a few exceptions, children and grandchildren of veterans are not eligible for benefits based on Agent Orange exposure. Some veterans organizations recommend filing a claim anyway, to create a record in case such claims are accepted in the future.
Sources: Department of Veterans Affairs; Vietnam Veterans of America
Terry White is 70 percent disabled and retired early because of health problems presumed to be connected to his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
But that’s not what the former Army cook worries about the most.
Instead, the 66-year-old fears he has passed his suffering along to his daughter — and now his grandson.
Both Christina White, 34, and her son, Zachary, 8, were born with cleft palates — a split in the roof of the mouth that can cause dental issues as well as eating, speech and hearing problems. And both suffer from syndactyly, a birth defect that causes fused, misshapen fingers and leaves extra webbing between fingers and toes.
“When (Christina) was born, the doctor examined her fingers, her toes, her mouth, everything,” Terry White recalled. “She pointed it out to me, all the things that were wrong. I just sat down and cried.”
U.S. military cargo planes and helicopters sprayed about 19 million gallons of Agent Orange and other “rainbow” herbicides across South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 to deny enemy troops the use of crops and the cover of jungle.
What service members didn’t know was that Agent Orange contained dioxin, a potent carcinogen later linked to heart disease, diabetes, multiple myeloma and neuropathy, as well as several forms of cancer.
Veterans groups fought for years for the right to receive health care and disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for a growing list of diseases.
Now the battle continues on behalf of the children and grandchildren of those same vets.
Life after Agent Orange: Terrence White
Vietnam veteran Terrence White holds a photo of himself as a young man who served in the Vietnam War. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
A UH-1 Huey helicopter sprays defoliants in South Vietnam.
The military stopped using Agent Orange after a 1970 study found that a key component could cause birth defects in lab animals.
Today, advocates from the Vietnam Veterans of America and several other groups believe birth defects like the cleft palates of White’s daughter and grandson — along with a host of other medical conditions — are connected to their fathers’ presumed exposure to Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants in Vietnam.
It’s a possibility that causes personal anguish for veterans.
“They feel, like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have married, maybe I shouldn’t have had kids,’?” said Dottie Barickman of Council Bluffs, national VVA at-large director.
Others place the blame squarely on the nation’s wartime decisions.
“What has happened to their children and grandchildren is not a coincidence,” said Maynard Kaderlik, the VVA’s Minnesota State Council president. “It’s the government that did this to us.”
At this point there’s no clear evidence to prove, or disprove, that Agent Orange is responsible for health problems among some offspring of Vietnam veterans.
Little research has been done, even though congressionally mandated studies by the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) have called for it, over and over. The latest report came out in March.
“Every biennial report attempted to make it clear that additional research needs to be done,” said Dr. Kenneth Ramos, chairman of the committee that produced the latest report and also the interim dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix.
The VA agrees that more research is needed.
“It’s a cutting-edge issue right at this time,” said Dr. Ralph Erickson, the VA’s chief consultant for post-deployment health services.
Yet repeated calls over more than 30 years have produced little new research in this country. Now veterans groups are pushing Congress to establish a new VA research center to study the health conditions in the descendants of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances while serving their nation.
Its mission would cover not just the offspring of service members exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam but also the children of Gulf War vets exposed to oil fires and depleted uranium in Kuwait, and the children of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and were exposed to toxic dust and the smoke from burn pits.
Zachary Vittitoe shows his deformed hands. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Read more about Agent Orange
500 Vietnam veterans
Five hundred Vietnam veterans from Nebraska will leave for Washington, D.C., early Monday for a quick tour of patriotic sites in the area, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
Following a banquet tonight and a predawn wake-up call, the veterans and those accompanying them will board three chartered jets — dubbed “Red,” “White” and “Blue” — for Washington.
They’ll be taken by bus for a short ceremony at the Vietnam memorial wall and to be photographed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They will also visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Air Force and Marine Corps memorials and the National World War II Memorial.
The veterans will return to Eppley Airfield's South Terminal between 9 and 10 p.m. Monday to what organizers Bill and Evonne Williams hope will be a huge throng of flag-waving well-wishers. Hy-Vee Supermarkets is sponsoring the homecoming.
Called the Vietnam Combat Veterans Flight, the trip follows the model of previous “honor flights” that have ferried 2,100 World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington since 2008. Through their nonprofit organization, Patriotic Productions, the Williamses raised $450,000 from about 550 individual and corporate donors to cover the Vietnam flights.
The VA already does recognize a link between Agent Orange and birth defects for the children of female Vietnam veterans, following a 1990s study that showed elevated rates of certain birth defects. Just 13 such children are receiving benefits, according to VA statistics.
But the children of male veterans generally cannot get benefits for health problems they believe are linked to Agent Orange. Currently the only birth defect recognized by the VA for the children of male veterans is spina bifida, in which a hole or gap develops in a baby’s spinal cord before birth. VA officials said 1,247 receive this benefit — although the most recent research casts doubt on the link between Agent Orange and spina bifida, according to the March report by the federal review committee.
The lack of official recognition hasn’t kept veterans such as Kaderlik from blaming Agent Orange for their children’s problems.
Kaderlik served in the Navy, two years offshore and one year attached to the Army in the Mekong Delta. He has survived prostate cancer, which is linked to Agent Orange exposure.
His son Joshua, 37, was born with a dislocated hip and has had learning disabilities. In addition, Kaderlik’s young granddaughter is mildly autistic.
“We think this is going to continue for four or five generations,” he said.
The impact of Agent Orange — both for veterans and their descendants — hangs over tomorrow’s Vietnam Combat Veterans Flight, which will carry 500 vets from Nebraska to Washington, D.C., for a one-day tour of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and other patriotic monuments. About 30 percent of the veterans on the flight are suffering with health problems they say are connected to Agent Orange.
Flight co-organizer Evonne Williams said many of them are sicker than the World War II and Korean War veterans they escorted on earlier flights.
“Considering they’re 15 or 20 years younger, their health is worse,” Williams said. “It’s been something that kind of surprised me. I wonder how much of that is related to Agent Orange.”
Life after Agent Orange: Larry Hammitt
Read more about Agent Orange
Vietnam veteran Terrence White, center, pictured during his service.
CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Vietnam Veteran Terrence White sits on the couch with his grandson Zachary Vittitoe. Both suffer health problems from Agent Orange. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Terry White doesn’t remember hearing much about Agent Orange while he was in Vietnam. The military had stopped using the stuff early in 1971, just before he arrived.
“As far as I know, there was no talk about it,” White said. “Nobody knew.”
He graduated from Boys Town High School in 1969 and was drafted a year later. The Vietnam War was highly controversial, but White knew he would serve when called.
“My dad and his brothers all went to World War II,” White said. “I didn’t want to be the first one in my family not to go.”
He served as a cook with a field artillery battalion that was part of the 101st Airborne Division. He spent part of his tour in the A Shau Valley, near the border with Laos.
The area had been largely shorn of vegetation years earlier through Agent Orange spraying.
“It was just kind of rocky,” White recalled.
He left the Army in 1972 and returned to Omaha to work for Vickers Hydraulics, which produced pumps, valves and cylinders until the plant was closed in 2001 after a corporate merger.
White’s diabetes and ischemic heart disease — “hardening of the arteries” — are presumed to be connected to Agent Orange exposure. He underwent a quadruple bypass eight years ago.
But he’s not the only one in his family who has suffered health problems.
Christina White was born 10 years after her father left Vietnam. The cleft palate gave her trouble from the beginning. An operation when she was 2 years old didn’t fully fix the problem.
“I had surgery,” she said. “But they told me my cleft is still open.”
She had trouble pronouncing words when she was a girl, which caused her problems at school.
“A lot of my words didn’t come out right,” Christina White said. “I was made fun of a lot.”
On top of that, she was often sick and had a runny nose.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. military aircraft sprayed Agent Orange over several million acres of jungle, forest and cropland in South Vietnam, and across the border in Laos and Cambodia. The largest concentrations were north of Saigon, and in the northern part of the country near the Demilitarized Zone.
Source: U.S. Department of the Army via Wikimedia Commons
Christina White’s childhood troubles made it all the harder when her son, Zachary, was born in 2007 with those same health problems — and then some.
Besides the cleft palate and syndactyly, a malformed jaw left Zachary with serious airway problems. He had to spend 2½ months in the hospital on a ventilator.
“His jaw was pushed back,” she said. “Every time he would lie down, it shut off his breathing.”
Zachary still suffers from asthma and was later diagnosed with autism. He receives more than 30 hours of therapy each week.
Christina White visited a geneticist at Boys Town National Research Hospital about her family’s health problems, but she didn’t get any answers.
“He thought this was really uncommon,” she said. “But they wouldn’t do any more testing.”
Cleft palate and syndactyly are common in Vietnam, where birth defects are widely believed to be linked to the extensive use of herbicides during the war.
Overall, cleft palate is one of the most common birth defects, affecting about 1 in 700 children. Medical researchers haven’t yet determined what causes it, but they believe it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Terry White, though, has no doubt that Agent Orange is responsible for the cleft palates of his daughter and grandson.
“We don’t have any family members that have this,” he said. “You can only come to one conclusion where it came from.”
While the VA accepts that exposure to Agent Orange causes such problems for the children of female veterans, and provides them with medical care and disability benefits, it doesn’t extend the same benefits to the offspring of male veterans. The VA says the scientific evidence doesn’t show that male veterans can pass along birth defects to their children in the same way that women can — though they acknowledge research hasn’t disproven the link, either.
Christina White doesn’t buy the agency’s position.
“It doesn’t matter if my mom was in the war, because my dad was,” Christina White said. “I think it’s stupid rules.”
Terry White wouldn’t change his decision to serve in Vietnam. But the idea that his daughter and grandson may be suffering from the consequences of a war that ended long before they were born is hard to take.
“I didn’t ask to go,” White said. “I can’t change what’s happened — it is what it is. If anything, I hope that we learn from it.”
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Tim Morrison, the father of Susan Littlefield, right, served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and was exposed to Agent Orange.
Susan Littlefield can’t forget her father’s service in the Vietnam War — not that she wants to.
She’s reminded constantly by the frequent searing pain in her arm, the result of a birth defect Littlefield and her father both believe is tied to his wartime exposure to Agent Orange. She can’t grip anything tightly, unscrew the top from a bottle or hold a fork properly. Her feet are misshapen, too.
“I was 6 or 7 when they discovered I had a bone missing in my arm,” said Littlefield, 45, a radio broadcaster who lives on a farm near Columbus, Nebraska. “It’ll wake me up in the middle of the night with a stabbing pain. There are times I’ve said I’d be better off without my arm.”
Tonight, at an Omaha dinner for 1,800 veterans, family members, and sponsors, she will tell her Agent Orange story.
Littlefield is speaking on the eve of a Vietnam Combat Veterans Flight that will carry 500 vets to Washington, D.C. She will join the trip as a support volunteer.
The health problems first showed up early in her life but actually began, she believes, with her father’s Navy service.
After enlisting in 1966, Tim Morrison became a communications specialist who maintained radios and video systems aboard the USS Elkhorn, a tanker ship.
“He went down the jungle rivers, delivering fuel,” Littlefield said.
Life after Agent Orange: Susan Littlefield
Morrison knew nothing about Agent Orange at the time, his daughter said. But years later, he remembered airplanes spraying in the jungle next to the rivers.
“He talks about the chemicals coming out of the sky,” Littlefield said. “It smelled funny. The next time they came through, everything would be dead.”
Morrison, left the Navy in 1970, got a job in his native Minnesota with 3M, and raised a family. Now 68 and retired, he lives in Texas and is suffering from late-stage kidney cancer that has spread.
Though his form of cancer is not among the diseases the Department of Veterans Affairs has presumptively linked to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, many veterans believe it’s connected. So do Littlefield and Morrison.
When Littlefield was a child in Minnesota, her parents frequently took her to the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Minneapolis and the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester.
Susan Littlefield, farm director at KZEN-FM radio in Columbus, Nebraska, takes calls during her shift at the radio station. Littlefield says she has lived with pain in her arms all of her life, which stems from her father's exposure to Agent Orange. MEGAN SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD.
Tim Morrison sits aboard the USS Elkhorn during his service in the Navy during the Vietnam War.
“One of the suspected issues was Agent Orange,” she said. “At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information about it.”
Over the years Littlefield has found ways to cope — like teaching herself to be ambidextrous.
Certainly her pain hasn’t kept her from accomplishing things in life. Besides being farm director for KZEN-FM radio, she is past president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters, a partner in her family’s farm operation, a volunteer emergency medical technician and a mom to three kids.
Littlefield’s youngest son has suffered a series of health problems unusual enough to make her wonder if they are connected to her father’s Agent Orange exposure, including severe acid reflux soon after he was born.
“It makes me wonder and hope that the VA is finally going to listen,” she said.
Until recently, Littlefield said her father never said much about his time in Vietnam.
“I always wanted to know more,” she said. “It’s only been in the last four or five years that he’s talked.”
Despite her father’s health problems, Littlefield said he has always worried most about her well-being.
“He blames himself for all the problems that I have, for the pain I’ve gone through,” she said. “Nobody knew back then that this chemical would cause harm.”
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Read more about Agent Orange
» Lack of baseline data has hindered research
» Agent Orange research center has backing among many in Congress