Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange herbicide may face a host of medical problems, as well as their children and grandchildren.
This was the focus of a town hall meeting Saturday morning at Fort Harrison VA Medical Hospital, organized by the Montana State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America.
The first such meeting in Montana, it drew about 50 vets and their family members from as far away as Kalispell and Hot Springs. It was one of about 80 VVA town meetings being held across the country.
Currently the Veterans Administration recognizes 50 illnesses or diseases connected to exposure to the Agent Orange herbicide — ranging from Parkinson’s and Hodgkin’s diseases to a host of cancers, according to meeting handouts.
However, the VVA veterans group suspects that many more diseases and health problems, particularly ones impacting children and grandchildren of Vietnam vets, are linked to Agent Orange and are not recognized by the Veterans Administration. So far, the VA recognizes 19 birth defects connected to Agent Orange for children born to female Vietnam vets, but only one of these — spina bifida — for children of both male and female vets, according to the handouts.
The main purpose of the town meetings is to reach Vietnam vets and have them learn more about the potential effects of exposure to the dioxin, said speaker Nancy S. Switzer of the VVA and the wife of a Vietnam vet.
“As a wife, mother and grandmother, Agent Orange dioxins have touched my life in an awful way,” she said.
Her husband, who was in the infantry in Vietnam and lost his leg due to a combat injury, now has prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of his body. Her daughter has a severe learning disability, her son is suffering from a rare heart condition and her granddaughter had a severe birth defect.
It was through talks with other Vietnam vets’ wives that she began to hear that their families had similar problems, ranging from autism, severe learning disabilities and psychological problems to miscarriages, premature births and birth defects.
She urged Vietnam vets to get enrolled with the VA, do the Agent Orange screening registry, request their service record, collect copies of their family’s medical records and begin to put in
medical claims for themselves and family members with an accredited service officer.
Even though these claims may be denied, it’s important to create a record, she said, because the condition may later be identified as a viable claim. If that happens, coverage is retroactive 20 years.
“You’d be surprised at how many veterans are not enrolled at the VA,” said Switzer, who is herself a service officer working with vets in New York state. Even if a vet’s service officer tells him or her the condition is not covered, the vet should insist on filing the paperwork anyway.
Agent Orange may impact more than just Vietnam vets and their families, said speaker Maynard Kaderlik, a VVA member from the Minnesota State Council. Agent Orange wasn’t just used in Vietnam, he said.
Reports indicate it was used in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Korea and domestic military bases.
Helena disabled Vietnam vet Vann Manly and his wife ,Karen, suspect some of their family’s health problems are linked to Agent Orange. Vann served two tours in Vietnam — 1963 and ’65, joining up when he was 19.
“I was a crew chief on helicopter,” he said. Not only was he in areas hit by Agent Orange, his entire helicopter was covered in it.
“We have had early deliveries — myself and my daughter,” said Karen. “We’ve had an explosion of mental health and physical disabilities,” she said of her children and grandchildren, including bipolar disorder, associative disorder and cerebral palsy.
“I don’t think all of these things are recognized (by the V.A.) yet,” she said. “This is not a generational problem.” She suspects that future generations of their family will continue to be impacted.
She was glad she came, she said. “I’m going to get my children involved — now that I have a starting point.”
She also wants word to spread: “The more people who know the better.”
“It was kind of eye-opening,” said veteran Dale Person, who was a Navy air crewman from 1965 to ’68. “We were in the Tonkin Gulf and in Danang.”
He has contracted kidney cancer, he said. His granddaughter was born with spina bifida and his daughter has lupus and another cancer.
Based on what he learned Saturday, “I’m going to go ahead and file some claims,” Person said.
VVA is gathering personal Agent Orange stories from veterans willing to go public, so they can share them with Congressional members in pushing for legislation such as Senate Bill 1602, calling for toxic exposure research and support for military families.