With so many pressing issues and difficulties in today’s world, some view the continuing health problems and illnesses surrounding “in-country” (boots-on-the-ground) Vietnam veterans as inconsequential in comparison.1 But make no mistake about it: even though President Nixon’s magnificent political declaration of “peace with honor” and the fall of Saigon in April of 1975 were supposed to symbolize the ending of the war in Vietnam, it hasn’t ended for me or for other military personnel who served in South Vietnam.
The last battles of the Vietnam War are still being waged by veterans all over the country. Even today, as you read this book, the skirmishes over the pesticides we veterans were exposed to and the presumed illnesses they caused are still raging. Our battles are not with the Viet Cong (VC) or the North Vietnamese army. Instead, our conflicts are with the myriad cancers, illnesses, and health issues that we—and even many of our children—must battle with, day in and day out.2
Our clashes and struggles are with the bureaucratic systems of the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) and with the very government that sent us to South Vietnam in the first place. You can rest assured the Vietnam War isn’t over—not by a long shot.
The fact that veterans who served in Vietnam must struggle with innumerable cancers, illnesses, and other health problems almost certainly caused by the highly toxic synthetic chemicals they were exposed to during the war is shameful—especially when you consider that those contaminated pesticides were atomized into a fine mist and sprayed onto them by their government/military leaders. More ominously, the substances veterans were exposed to were long-enduring herbicides and insecticides, still quite capable of claiming new lives daily—even though the Vietnam War has been diplomatically resolved for half a century.
As if being unprotected from health-damaging pesticides wasn’t bad enough, boots-on-the-ground veterans were tactlessly thrown under the bus, by those very same government officials. Then, to add insult to injury, after being treacherously betrayed by administrative bureaucrats—who, for the most part, were sitting safely in Washington, DC, during the war—they proceeded to back their bus up and run over veterans again and again, just for good measure. This book is my view from under that governmental bus.
By the way, if you feel my use of the phrase treacherously betrayed was too harsh after you finish reading this book, let me know what your thoughts are. Was my comment too robust or just right—or do you think it’s a little on the weak side?
Agent Orange and Its Deadly Companions
Without a doubt, the term Agent Orange will be remembered in dishonor, no matter what the US government may assert. Still, for most people living in today’s world, the term doesn’t have much significance other than that it had something to do with “that war in Asia.” However, for the military personnel who served in South Vietnam, Agent Orange is synonymous with illness, pain, suffering, and death.
Official US government archives contain the files of more than 58,220 US service personnel who died in Vietnam. They were considered the ultimate casualties of that war. In addition, scores more—over three hundred thousand3—were recorded as injured or maimed. Disappointingly, not chronicled in those sobering statistics are the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, marines, and sailors who were injured or killed by the chemical pesticides sprayed on them during the war but didn’t understand it until many years later.
Ever since the official end of the Vietnam War, the US government, the DVA, and the Department of Defense (DOD) have denied, obstructed, and rebuffed almost all attempts at etiologically or medically linking any illness or disorder with exposure to Agent Orange or to any of the other less-publicized—but just as deadly—pesticides deployed during the war. Our government and DVA continue their denials and obstructive actions with policies and procedures for which their mantra could very well be “Delay and deny until they all die.”4
Dr. Jeanne Stellman, an epidemiologist who has spent decades studying Agent Orange for the American Legion and the National Academy of Sciences, said the following in a 2009 Chicago Tribune interview with Jason Grotto and Tim Jones:
We do not know the answer to the question: What happened to Vietnam veterans? The government doesn’t want to study this because of international liability and issues surrounding chemical warfare. And they’re going to win because they’re bigger and everybody’s getting old and there are new wars to worry about.5
What a sad commentary on our legislative and military leaders. It’s shameful and disappointing that veterans must struggle with serious illnesses because of all the harmful pesticides they were exposed to while serving the United States. Dr. Stellman’s observation of our administrative leaders is an accurate, concise, and honest one. What our government has done over the years to Vietnam veterans is reprehensible. It would have been much better if our elected officials had chosen to bite the bullet and throw the chemical companies that made the extremely harmful pesticides and the officials who decided to use them under the bus instead of the veterans who were exposed to their nightmarish military concoctions.
At this point, you might be asking, “Just who are you to be talking about the US government and military in this way?” In reality, I’m just one of the many boots-on-the-ground Vietnam veterans trying to make sense of the overly complicated bureaucratic care-and-benefit system set up by our policymakers and the DVA to consider our exposure to Agent Orange and all the other intermingled destructive pesticides used during the Vietnam War.
Ironically, the US military test-sprayed the first of their many hazardous herbicides on my fifteenth birthday, during Operation Hades, over a small village north of Dak To, located in Kon Tum Province. This early creation was called Dinoxol, and five short years after that unfortunate day, I would find myself in Vietnam.
I was stationed in Vietnam for two years, nine months, and twenty-two days—from September 1966 through June 1969. During this time—as chronicled, thanks in part to work done by Dr. Jeanne Mager Stellman and her group—I was located in geographic areas of South Vietnam that had been sprayed directly with several tactical grade pesticides. So despite the fact, we saw personnel with backpacks spraying around the cantonment areas, and on occasion aerial spraying by helicopters or planes, we were never told exactly what was in those fine mists being spewed out on us.
All the same, according to recently declassified military records, we were showered with, at a minimum, the herbicides Agent Orange and Agent White and the insecticides malathion and DDT.
I’m sure by now almost everyone has heard about Agent Orange, perhaps even to the point of exasperation. But have you ever heard anything—anything at all—about the following health-damaging chemicals contained in the tactical pesticides used by the military during the war in South Vietnam?
**2,4-D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid): one of the active ingredients in Agent Orange (also called Dinoxol) & in Agent White (also called Tordon 101)
**2, 4, 5-T (2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid): one of the active ingredients in Agent Orange
**Picloram (4-amino-3,5,6-trichloro picolinic acid): one of the active ingredients in Agent White
**HCB (Hexachlorobenzene): A toxic side reaction compound found in Agent White. It has also been classified as a POP (Persistent Organic Pollutant) by the Stockholm Convention.
**Triisopropanolamine: one of the “inert” components in Agent White
**TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, better known as dioxin): a deadly contaminant found in Agent Orange, Agent White and other pesticides
**DLC (Dioxin-like compound): toxic impurities found in Agent Orange, Agent White, malathion, and many other pesticides
**Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX): toxic substances contained in JP-4 and various petroleum products used to dilute oil base pesticides
**Malathion: an insecticide from the family of pesticides called organophosphates
**OSS-TMP (O,S,S-trimethyl phosphorodithioate): a more toxic storage contaminant of malathion
**Malaoxon: a more toxic metabolite6 of malathion
I suspect that you’ve heard little or nothing about any of these hazardous chemicals being used during the Vietnam War or about the fact that almost everyone stationed there was exposed to them multiple times.
Now keep in mind that the preceding was the “short list” of chemicals. As you will soon learn, there were an endless number of other chemicals—both known and still unidentified—contained in the few tactical grade pesticides I have noted. All the same, while we were in Vietnam, we didn’t know those toxic chemicals were contained in the pesticides being sprayed on us, let alone the harm they could do to our health, especially synergistically. I, like many others, wanted to believe our military leaders when they told us that the substances being sprayed on us were safe, or as various officials had allegedly said, “They are just as safe as your backyard bug spray or weed killer. In fact, you can shower in the stuff, and it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Even though we didn’t know the harm these pesticides were capable of causing, the chemical companies and the chemists who worked for them, as well as our government scientists, knew full well what they were capable of doing to any human, animal, or plant unlucky enough to be put in their path. They knew the tremendously harmful and systemically damaging nature of these very quickly and cheaply made heavy-duty military pesticides.
Unfortunately, it is chiefly because chemical firms produced their tactical pesticides so quickly and cheaply—for the exclusive use of our military—that the finished products were significantly more dangerous. In fact, any person in a six-plus-mile range of any base or operational location being sprayed might have had their health compromised and wouldn’t even realize it.
I hope most of you still remember the old Frank Robinson classic 1973 baseball quote, “Close don’t count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Well, you can add herbicides and insecticides to the end of that astute assessment. The sad irony is that the military pesticides could have been made less toxic and detrimental if the chemical companies had crafted them far more slowly and methodically via a low-heat method. But the low-heat, extra-care techniques would have been substantially more expensive for the military and markedly less profitable for the chemical companies manufacturing them.
As a consequence, the clandestine pesticides and associated chemicals military personnel were exposed too were considerably more hazardous and health altering. To put it bluntly, our lifelong health and well-being would suffer as a result of exposure to these “classified” nightmarish herbicides and insecticides. Deplorably, the adverse health problems would surface years or decades after the war, as aging also played a role.
Unfortunately, the very same pesticides that are causing veterans’ health problems are also quite capable of causing significant genetic injuries—chromosomal damage—which could be passed on and have detrimental health impacts on their children, their grandchildren, and, quite credibly, even their grandchildren’s children.