For First Time in 3 Decades, VA to Launch Studies into Agent Orange Effects on Vietnam Vets

Tuesday, July 05, 2016
Linda Spoonster Schwartz

By Charles Ornstein and Terry Parris Jr., ProPublica, and Mike Hixenbaugh, Virginian-Pilot


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is expanding its efforts to determine how Vietnam veterans and their children have been affected by exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.


The VA will conduct its first nationwide survey of Vietnam veterans in more than three decades and request an outside panel of experts to continue its work studying the health effects of Agent Orange on veterans, their children and their grandchildren. Both initiatives were discussed Thursday in Washington at a forum hosted by ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot on the possible multi-generational impacts of Agent Orange.


Vietnam veterans have argued for years that their exposure to the toxic herbicide has damaged their health as well as their children’s. From 1965 to 1970, some 2.6 million U.S. service members were potentially exposed to Agent Orange, which contained a dangerous strand of the chemical dioxin. While the VA has linked Agent Orange exposure to a host of diseases in Vietnam vets, experts and veterans advocates have criticized the lack of research into the effects on future generations.


“I believe that these individuals deserve an answer,” Linda Spoonster Schwartz, the VA’s assistant secretary for policy and planning, said in response to a question about the lack of research. “I believe that we need to at least ask the question. … This is the right thing to do.”


ProPublica and The Pilot have been examining the effects of Agent Orange for the past year and have heard from more than 5,500 veterans and their families. Thursday’s forum – titled A Toxic Legacy: Has Agent Orange Hurt the Children of Vietnam Vets? – featured veterans advocates, researchers and policy makers. It also provided a rare opportunity for frustrated veterans to vent directly to high-ranking VA officials. Veterans came from as far away as Mississippi and Pennsylvania to share their stories. Pilot photographer Stephen M. Katz told of his own health problems, which he believes may be linked to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange.


In one emotional exchange, Reginald Russell Sr., an Army veteran from Suffolk, Va., rose from the audience and accused the VA of ignoring anecdotal evidence that Agent Orange had harmed children of vets. Russell’s first son, born shortly after he returned from Vietnam in 1971, died inexplicably at 9 months old. His youngest son, born a few years later with a heart defect, died in 2012 at 32.


Russell held up a photo of a grave marker: “That’s my child,” he said, choking up.


“I can’t imagine the pain you’re having,” said Schwartz, who joined the VA in 2014 after years spent researching and advocating for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. “Let me say that this is a new day. … We can do this study. I know you’ve heard this before, and so have I, but we will do this not just for the ones who have passed away, but for the ones who have yet to be born.”


A small number of male veterans’ children – those born with spina bifida – are eligible for Agent Orange disability payments from the VA. So are the children of female vets born with about a dozen other defects.


Although the vast majority of Vietnam veterans are men, most of the research about the transgenerational effects of Agent Orange has been focused on women, said Dr. Kenneth Ramos, chairman of an Institute of Medicine committee that recently reviewed research on Agent Orange.


Ramos said scientific evidence increasingly supports the idea that a father’s exposure to toxins can affect his offspring genetically, potentially harming children and grandchildren. But more research needs to be done.


“The scientific studies that have been conducted have not yet provided the evidence,” he said.


Ramos said he was pleased to learn the agency was launching a nationwide survey.


Victoria Davey, a senior VA scientist and a lead researcher on the project, said her team would begin mailing questionnaires to randomly selected Vietnam era veterans in the fall, asking dozens of questions about their health and economic status, as well as the health of their children.


“The major question in this study is ‘am I different?’” Davey said. "Is the Vietnam veteran different from the U.S. public and other service members who served at the time” but did not deploy.


The research will take years, Davey said, but she hopes preliminary results will begin answering the question as early as next year.


Heather Bowser, co-founder of Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, said she supports the VA’s new efforts but lamented that the work is only now beginning. Bowser’s father was exposed to Agent Orange in 1968. A few years later, she was born prematurely, missing a leg, a big toe and several fingers. She leads a group of more than 3,700 other children of Vietnam veterans who believe their health has been affected by Agent Orange.


“I’m 43 years old,” said Bowser, who was on the panel. “How much more time should my family have to wait?”


One of the challenges of understanding the effects of Agent Orange is the lack of data collected during the war, making it nearly impossible to know if or how much any given veteran was exposed to the toxins. The same is true of Iraq war veterans who may have been exposed to depleted uranium or toxic burn pits.


The VA’s Schwartz revealed plans for a pilot program in partnership with the Department of Defense to begin tracking environmental exposures of service members in real time, possibly making it easier in the future to understand how military service affects a veterans’ health.


As the forum came to a close, Peter D. Rumm, director of the VA’s pre–9/11 era environmental health program, announced the agency’s intention to ask the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, to conduct another review of Agent Orange research, including a look into the effects on veterans’ children. The request comes months after the IOM wrapped up its 10th and final biennial Agent Orange report.


Rumm encouraged those in attendance to keep applying pressure.


“Government reacts,” Rumm said. “Those of you in the field and those of you affected by this, keep pushing, because eventually things will happen.”


To Learn More:

VA Officials Pledge New Studies Into Effects of Agent Orange (by Charles Ornstein and Terry Parris Jr., ProPublica, and Mike Hixenbaugh, Virginian-Pilot)

Politics and Cost Wrongly Influence VA Decisions on Agent Orange Vet Benefits (by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Mike Hixenbaugh, The Virginian-Pilot)

New Evidence Linking Bladder Cancer to Agent Orange Gives Vietnam Vets Hope in Fight for VA Benefits (by Mike Hixenbaugh, The Virginian-Pilot, and Charles Ornstein)

See all 30 comments


Alan Cady 6 years ago
I am to old for a lung transplant at 71 at most places but someone on this great site talked about it hospital that will do a lung transplant up to 75 years. I lost the information and would love the hero to repost the information. My email is. Thank you all Alan Cady
Stephen Smith 6 years ago
I hope they look into peripheral nephropathy as well. It is tough to claim after 2 years of exposure. i have muscle cramps all over my body and acute to sub acte pn. Loss of muscle streght and edurance.
Larry Tobleck 6 years ago
Based 40 K from Quin non,half way to An Kai(?) 67-68 Truck driver delivering HE shells to fire bases thru out mid to just south of DMZ. Many overnights on these bases, mornings would have film on truck windows,drank water from wells drilled on some of the bases, Daylight the roads were sometime slick from jet fuel and AO overspray. Left kidney removed with RCC , 8-2000, metastatic RCC thru out body and shoulder blade in 1-2016, VA saying no AO. Responsibility, filling claim after claim. Is RCC/Kidney cancer going to included in these new studies? AO's chemical compounds HAVE been studied and kinked to RCC but VA disapproves. Same type of chemicals have been found in water at Marine Camp Legune, and have been presumes to cause RCC, why not Vietnam vet ? We drank water from wells, streams, rivers that were contaminated from these chemicals and other contaminates! Had still born child in 1975 other kids seem ok, only OCD.
Mac B Porter 6 years ago
They don't mention much about agent blue or the Rainbow Agents! There are several others, but if google Agent Blue it will show you several more agents that we were sprayed with!! They never mention those though!!Also there are still classified reports that the have hidden from us for years. Might be a good time to gather some of those reports up too! Just because doesn't say what they want to hear, why should they hide them!!Look for the report that was under the direction of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt! After his son died!! ***
Dennis F. Monahan 6 years ago
I have a disease called Benign Cramp faciculation Syndrome...CFS. I have muscle contractions from my throat to my toes every day. I can tell you this is very rare and painful. I've had this condition since I was 21-22 yrs. old. progressively getting worse with time. I am 68 yrs. old now. I take 6 Epelesy pills, 4 muscle relaxants and 2 and 1 half Valium daley. I still suffer extremely. I was in RVN '68-'69 in the Iron Triangle. One of the most highly concentrated areas to be sprayed. I researched this CFS in many forums. each forum noted it was caused by Toxins yet the VA does not want to hear it. The contractions are so severe that I have to leave from where ever I am and seek some privacy to suffer alone. I can't come to your home and stay long without cramping up. My driving is limited. It is terrible and would't wish it on my enemies. I hope to be included in this study. As I type this note my hands and fingers are cramping up pretty good so I'm going to close for now and take 1 half of a 10 mg. Valium. Thanks for the ear.
Greg Kleven 7 years ago
I'm a Viet Nam combat vet 66-67. I took part in the first VA research program to collect and examine data related to Agent Orange. It was in 1982 I believe. In 1980 my wife and I had a baby daughter who looked perfect, except very small. She weighed a pound and a half at birth. The doctors had no idea what the problem was. For weeks she was transferred from hospital to hospital until finally a doctor diagnosed her with Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder causing a third gene to be present. The first question the doctor asked me was if I was ever in Vietnam. I said yes, and he asked if I was exposed to Agent Orange. I told him I didn't know what Agent Orange was. He asked if I served around Da Nang and when I said yes he said I was probably exposed during that time. Our daughter died from her medical problems in February of 1981. The VA denied my claim and said my daughter's death was not related to Agent Orange. I would love for that to be true.
Sam LaChapelle 7 years ago
Served in Nam 65,66,67. We watched Ranch Hand spray our area is 66. Our water came from a stream in the defoliated area, so we drank, bathed and our food was prepared with this water which was only treated for bacteria. Was a young career soldier in those days, and felt bullet proof. Retired in 83 and subsequently developed peripheral neuropathy, hypertension, and now even more nerve related issues. VA denied my claim for Orange saying I needed to have 10% disability within 12 months of exposure. What is 10% to a young guy (a hang nail?). Oh well my first appeal took almost 6 years to get a hearing and then they wanted me to spend 8 hours traveling at my own expense to the hearing site. I claimed a hardship as I knew I would again be denied. Oh well all you other Nam vets, we will be dead before they determine what is killing us. CW3 S. LaChapelle
Brendasuesmiley 7 years ago
Robin Akins 7 years ago
God bless you MSGT Leroy Foster! I hope your remaining time with us good and you are cared for properly. Do not feel quilty for the death of all those babies and veterans who were exposed to AO. You did not know how lethal the stuff was and you were serving your country with the hope of keeping America free and helping South Viet Nam people. You are not to blame.
Robin Akins 7 years ago
I am a 65 year old 100% agent orange disabled Viet Nam Army veteran who served one year in various locations in Viet Nam. It should be remembered that many of the bases in Nam came about after defoliation of the area in which they were settled. Many of the bases defoliated the perimeters to make them safer. My son was three years old and had ALL leukemia which he was treated for over three years. Even though he was very intelligent, he had physical limitations and mental issues after his treatment. He passed away in an automobile accident two weeks before his 21st birthday. I think about him everyday and always wondered if my exposure may have affected him. I am glad they are doing this study and hope any children suffering from their parents passing on agent orange induced genetic problems are appropriately compensated. God bless my fellow veterans from this war and God bless their children.

Leave a comment