29 May 2018
Nicole Fisher , CONTRIBUTOR, FORBES Magazine
Sadly though, as time goes by we are finding that those who made it home oftentimes brought the deadly echoes of war home with them.
Despite little coverage of the herbicide for decades, its deadly effects have impacted the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who interacted with the chemical.'
While honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice during war, Memorial Day also presents an opportunity for Americans to reflect upon the loss of life because of war. Memorial Day (unlike Veteran’s Day which honors those who served) pays tribute to those who died on the battlefield for our country. Sadly though, as time goes by we are finding that those who made it home oftentimes brought the deadly echoes of war home with them. This is particularly true for soldiers of the Vietnam War. And, the repercussions of war-time actions in Vietnam are still being felt, more than four decades later, as the decedents of those brave men and women battle health issues related to a frightening ghost of their ancestor’s past: Agent Orange.
The Vietnam Memorial lists the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died overseas. However, the wall does not document any names of the estimated 2.8 million U.S. vets who were exposed to the poisonous chemical while serving and later died.
The Gruesome Legacy
In total, the U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of various herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971. However, according to the EPA, Agent Orange, which contains the poisonous chemical dioxin, was the most commonly used. And among those who were lucky enough to survive the trenches of Vietnam, the health issues – now generations later – have been a living nightmare. Agent Orange is linked to serious health issues including cancers, severe psychological and neurological problems, and birth defects, both among the Vietnamese people and the men and women of the U.S. military.
Despite little coverage of the herbicide for decades, its deadly effects have impacted the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who interacted with the chemical. And that’s just in the U.S. military. Those who lost their lives or faced grave physical and mental repercussions of Agent Orange include State Department officials, soldiers from countries like Australia and visitors who spent stints in the region due to war-time obligations. Additionally, more than 4 million Vietnamese citizens were subjected to Agent Orange exposure.
Charles Bailey, PhD– co-author of a new book From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange– explained to me that, “When it comes to Agent Orange, the fog of war continued on long after the guns fell silent in Vietnam.”
He and his co-author Le Ke Son, PhD, of Vietnam have been working to bring the U.S. and Vietnam together to resolve, to the fullest extent possible, the continuing health impact of Agent Orange. The issue had long been deadlocked, with one group looking at it exclusively as an issue of science and the other exclusively as an issue of justice. Bailey and Son helped fill in the “missing middle” between these two groups with new voices and constructive action which broke the logjam.
What they mean by that, is not only cleaning up the mess that has persisted for individuals and communities, but to begin the bilateral healing process by having the uncomfortable conversations that the American military refused to have. Lucky for them, the State Department, USAID, and Congress – specifically Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) agree. He stated on record that his goal is to, “Turn Agent Orange from being a symbol of antagonism and resentment into another example of the U.S. and Vietnamese governments working together to address one of the most difficult and emotional legacies of war.”
Emotion Meets Action
Dioxin is highly toxic (even in minute doses) and accumulates in fatty tissue. Thus, fish, birds and other animals have kept Agent Orange chemical compounds in their bodies for years - as well as continue to eat from the lands and waterways that were directly doused in Agent Orange. Because of this, most human exposure to these lethal carcinogens is now via foods. Which has caused significant diplomatic and global health troubles between our countries.
While the U.S. has aimed for decades to mend relations with the Vietnamese, our refusal to talk about the repercussions of our earlier military actions has been a huge hinderance. That is, until the last few years. Thanks to former Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) who sponsored the Agent Orange Act of 1991, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in 2015 had paid $24 billion in disability compensation to 1.3 million veterans who served in our armed forces sometime during the Vietnam era. Both the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration have supported Congress in its efforts to address the genetic consequences that Agent Orange has caused our two countries.
By recognizing that thosewho have died of dioxin-relatedhealth issues are casualties of war, and the cultural, economic and diplomatic consequences of wartime actions, the U.S. has also taken major steps to help clean up the three confirmed residual hot stops in Vietnam. Former American military bases and the Da Nang Airport have been the primary targets. And, thankfully by the middle of 2017, in line with Senator Leahy’s united vision, Da Nang Airport was dioxin free.
These actions have gone a long way in building both confidence and collaboration between our countries. And finally, the legacy of Agent Orange is beginning to cast less of a shadow. But after losing more than 58,000 American comrades on the battlefield in Vietnam, the lives of those who returned home were never the same. Half a century later many lives are still being lost due to horrific health issues and chemically-induced genetic mutations.
While they did not die on the battlefield in Vietnam, the deadly repercussions of Agent Orange have known no boundaries. So this Memorial Day, as we observe our fallen men and women through public ceremony or private prayer, let’s be sure to think about all of the military lives lost because of war.