Vietnam vets suffer from long-term effects of Agent Orange

Over the past few decades, thousands of vets exposed to herbicides have developed a wide array of health problems

Vietnam vets suffer from long-term effects of Agent Orange

U.S. Army armored personnel carrier spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War (Wikimedia Commons)

By Kelly Humphrey
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla.  — When the 819th Red Horse Squadron arrived in Phu Cat, South Vietnam in 1966, there were just two concrete slabs sitting in the spot where the U.S. Air Force planned to build to build a base.

Within a year, Destin resident Hugh Kendall and his comrades within the squadron had constructed two bases. It was hard, outdoor work, and in the late afternoon hours the men often relaxed by sitting outside and watching the C-123s Providers flying overhead. The specially modified aircraft were spraying the densely forested countryside with defoliants and herbicides like Agent Orange.

"We'd watch them drop that stuff up in the mountains," Kendall said. "We didn't know at the time that it was hazardous. We were glad to see it, because it got rid of the undergrowth where the Viet Cong used to hide."

Ed Rogers of Fort Walton Beach has his own memories of Agent Orange.

During his tour of duty in 1966, Rogers was assigned to a primitive base in ­­­­­­­­­­Bien Hoa.

"We were situated by a river, and all of our water, for both bathing and drinking, came from it," Rogers recalled.

The river, unfortunately, was tainted with Agent Orange.

"They used to spray it on the riverbank," Rogers said. "They had to get rid of the tall grasses there, because at night the enemy would sail up the river and then hide in the grass. The next morning, they'd attack whatever base they were next to with mortars."

Cause And Effect
After leaving the Air Force, both Kendall and Rogers pursued other careers and put the horrors of war behind them. But as time passed, both men began to develop health problems that left their doctors puzzled at first.

"About 23 years ago, I developed Type 2 diabetes," Kendall said. "It's like it just hit me overnight. I went to the doctor, and it took a while to finally figure out what it was."

It turns out that after years of denial, the government finally acknowledged that Agent Orange exposure was linked to dozens of health problems, diabetes among them. Kendall also suffered from neuropathy and high blood pressure other side effects of exposure.

"The combination of my diabetes and my high blood pressure caused my kidneys to fail," said Kendall, who now undergoes dialysis three times a week.

In Rogers' case, the first serious signs of trouble occurred around 2003, when he began to experience shortness of breath and chest pains.

"I went to see my doctor at Eglin, and he immediately referred me to a specialist at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi," he said.

The specialist told Rogers that he had serious blockages in his coronary artery. He underwent a quadruple bypass and an aortic valve replacement.

"I've got neuropathy, too, and serious pain in my joints," he added.  Ischemic heart disease is one of the many conditions linked to Agent Orange.

Rogers said he is amazed by the number of people he knows who have suffered from the effects of the now-notorious herbicide.

"My next-door neighbor's husband was a pilot who transported barrels of that stuff to Vietnam," he said. "He died from throat cancer — another disease that it can cause."

Care And Compensation
In 1991, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, which created a list of "presumptive illnesses" for which veterans can apply for compensation and medical care.

Last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that eligibility for benefits would be extended to reservists who were exposed to Agent Orange residue on C-123s after the war. This includes some people who were stationed at Eglin and Hurlburt Field from 1970 to 1973.

While the VA is much more accommodating these days than in years immediately following the war, both Rogers and Kendall had to wait for quite a while before they began to receive benefits.

"It took a couple of years," Rogers said. "I didn't apply for anything back in 1973 when I retired, because we didn't know anything back then. These days, they're much more aware of the dangers. You get a VA eligibility exam before you even get discharged."

Despite having to wait years before receiving benefits, Kendall remains philosophical about his situation.

"I served my country. I did what I was supposed to do," he said. "I guess it's just the perils of war."

Agent Orange By The Numbers
1962 — 1972: years when Agent Orange and other defoliants and herbicides were dispensed in Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia

20 million: number of gallons dispensed

20,000: number of sorties flown under Operation Ranch Hand, the code name for the effort to spray herbicides and defoliants

5 million: number of acres sprayed

105,000: number of claims filed for damages under the 1984 Agent Orange Settlement Fund and class action lawsuit

52,000: number of claims actually awarded

Agent Orange's Eglin Connection
EGLIN AFB — Decades ago, the Eglin reservation was a fertile proving ground for testing Agent Orange and other chemicals that made up the "Rainbow Herbicides" used during the Vietnam War.

"During periods of the 1960s, Eglin developed and tested herbicide delivery systems — basically nozzles — to support the war effort in Vietnam," said Mike Spaits,  a spokesman for the base's environmental public affairs office. "Multiple herbicides were tested on various ranges on the reservation."

Spaits was quick to point out, however, that the portions of the reservation contaminated by Agent Orange and its cousins can no longer be accessed by the public.

According to a report issued by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, public access to the contaminated areas is limited by locked gates and fences, security personnel, and the area's natural topography.

"It's important to note that these sites pose no public health hazard," Spaits said.

Agent Orange Exposure
Although the federal government originally stated that Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the Vietnam War posed no danger to humans or the environment, over the past five decades thousands of veterans exposed to it have developed a wide array of health problems.

The Department of Veterans Affairs currently lists the following conditions as related to Agent Orange exposure:

AL Amyloidosis — a rare disease caused when a protein called amyloid enters tissues or organs.

Chronic B-cell Leukemias   — a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells.

*Chloracne — a skin condition that resembles common forms of acne

Diabetes Mellitus Type 2 — A disease characterized by high blood sugar levels resulting from inability to respond to insulin

Hodgkin's Disease — a malignant lymphoma that causes enlargement of the lymph nodes, liver and spleen

Ischemic Heart Disease — characterized by a reduced supply of blood to the heart that leads to chest pain

Multiple Myeloma — A cancer of the plasma cells

Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma — A group of cancers that affect the lymph glands and other tissues

Parkinson's Disease — A progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects muscle movement

*Peripheal Neuropathy, Early-Onset A nervous system condition that causes numbness, tingling, and motor weakness

*Porphyria Cutanea Tarda A disorder characterized by liver dysfunction and by thinning and blistering of skin in sun-exposed areas
Prostate Cancer

Respiratory Cancer — Cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea and bronchus

Soft tissue sarcomas — A group of different types of cancers in body tissues such as muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels and connective tissues.

*Certain conditions have special eligibility requirements.

For information on the diseases and conditions shown to have a connection to Agent Orange exposure, visit http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/conditions/

Copyright 2015 the Northwest Florida Daily News