Fallout from the Vietnam War keeps coming.
Four decades later, that fallout is spilling over from the war’s veterans to succeeding generations: Serious, sometimes life-threatening diseases are cropping up in families of veterans who were exposed to the notorious exfoliant Agent Orange.
The herbicide was sprayed over the jungles of South Vietnam from 1962 until 1971, when a study linked a key compound in Agent Orange to birth defects in lab animals.
Health problems cropped up eventually for many exposed veterans. Richard Noddings, an Army veteran from rural Wilber, Nebraska, survived 18 months in Vietnam. Now, at 64, he uses a walker and suffers from fibromyalgia and heart disease. “Eventually, realistically, Vietnam will kill me,” Noddings told World-Herald military writer Steve Liewer. “It’s just taking its damn sweet time doing it.”
The federal government took years to acknowledge and confirm links between Agent Orange and certain health problems in Vietnam veterans.
Now, as detailed in Liewer’s recent reporting, the Vietnam Veterans of America and other advocacy groups believe that a variety of birth defects, diseases and medical conditions being seen in male Vietnam veterans’ children and grandchildren are also tied to Agent Orange.
Family after family told Liewer heartbreaking stories about diabetes. Cleft palate. Multiple myeloma and other cancers. Nerve damage. Defective connective tissues. Fused, misshapen fingers and toes.
Army veteran Terry White remembers the birth of his daughter. “When (Christina) was born, the doctor examined her fingers, her toes, her mouth, everything,” he said. “She pointed it out to me, all the things that were wrong. I just sat down and cried.”
The problem: Research is scant to determine whether Agent Orange and other toxic substances used in the war are truly responsible for the health problems suffered by the children and grandchildren of male veterans.
The government does recognize links between the chemical and certain health issues suffered by children of female Vietnam veterans. For male veterans’ offspring, only spina bifida has a recognized link. Scientists remain baffled by how men could pass other problems on to their children. Some hope a new field, epigenetics, will produce answers.
Members of Congress and medical professionals are pressing to ramp up medical research into the issues, and the Veterans Administration is supportive.
The latest proposal is the Toxic Exposure Research Act, which would establish a new research center within the VA, at an estimated cost of $74 million. The research would fold in the effects of exposure to oil fires and uranium in Kuwait during the Gulf War and the impact of burn pit smoke and toxic dust during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About half the members of Congress support the bill. Co-sponsors include Nebraska Reps. Brad Ashford and Jeff Fortenberry, western Iowa Reps. Steve King and David Young and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Other Midlands members voice support for more research but prefer other approaches or are still reviewing the details.
Not even the VA is fully persuaded this approach is best. Dr. Ralph Erickson, post-deployment health consultant for the VA, would like to have the National Institutes of Health head the research, noting that the VA has little to do with pediatric health issues.
Congress needs to nail these important decisions. But more importantly, it needs to take action, and soon. Families are suffering.
Soon the great-grandchildren of Vietnam veterans will come along. They need a future free from the specter of Agent Orange.