After a year of research and reporting about the legacy of Agent Orange, I feel certain of one thing: We don’t yet know the full extent of dioxin’s harm.
It appears to be a story with no end in sight.
On Sunday, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland ran a special report titled “Unfinished Business” (cleveland.com/ agentorange). It detailed how the U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of the herbicide containing dioxin to defoliate the triple-canopy jungles that hid Ho Chi Minh’s northern forces during the Vietnam War. We reported that at least 4.5 million Vietnamese and the 2.5 million Americans who served there may have been exposed, leading to more than a dozen illnesses in adults and possibly to numerous birth defects in subsequent generations.
Thirty-five years after the war ended, 28 dioxin hot spots continue to contaminate Vietnam’s food supply and imperil the health of millions of adults and children.
The Vietnamese aren’t asking for contrition or a confession. They just want a future free of the poison we left behind. I have added my voice to the growing chorus of scientists, policy makers and experts who insist we should clean up our mess.
Even as our story about Agent Orange was going to press last week, dioxin’s legacy continued to leach into the lives of more U.S. veterans, this time reaching into the ranks of those who served in Korea during the Vietnam War.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced that any veteran who served between April 1, 1968, and August 31, 1971, “in a unit determined … to have operated in an area in or near the Korean DMZ in which herbicides were applied” is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.
To quote the VA news release, “ This ‘presumption’ simplifies and speeds up the application process for benefits and ensures that veterans receive the benefits they deserve.”
Missing in that announcement was anything close to an apology for making those particular Vietnam Era veterans wait more than 40 years for any acknowledgement that they had been exposed to Agent Orange and denied crucial medical coverage.
Not that you’ll hear any complaints from them. When it comes to expectations, Vietnam veterans have learned to set the bar low.
So, what have we learned from all this? That’s the question we’re supposed to ask, right?
Last fall, I turned to Edwin A. Martini, associate professor of history at Western Michigan University and author of “Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975 — 2000.” He is currently working on a book about the history of Agent Orange and was quick to point out that, while Vietnam veterans’ health concerns were dismissed for far too long, no one could have anticipated the sweeping changes that are helping them now.
“We’re at a point nobody would have predicted 30 years ago,” he said. “Back then it would have been considered absurd to suggest that exposure to Agent Orange could cause Type 2 diabetes, for example. If you had asked me even 10 years ago if diabetes would have been on the presumptive list, I would have said no.”
The companies responsible for manufacturing and distributing Agent Orange will never own their responsibility.
“The chemical companies continue to say, ‘Studies fail to link…’” Martini said. “ But the list (of covered illnesses) is going to get longer. And we should place the burden of proof on those who say there is no connection.”
What worries me now is what we haven’t learned from history. At the height of the Vietnam War, people did not know about Agent Orange.
It begs the question: What don’t we know about the hazards facing U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan? What long-term dangers lurk for them and for the citizens of those countries?
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Martini said. “It’s what we don’t know that keeps me up at night.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and essayist for Parade magazine. ©2011 Creators