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 25 comments


Greg Kleven 2 months 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 3 months 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 5 months ago
Robin Akins 11 months 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 11 months 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.
Mike Yates 11 months ago
I find it amazing that in this country of ours that one PERSON has so much power that he can decide on his own if a Bill won’t become law. Let us look at how a Bill becomes law; 1. A member of Congress introduces a bill. 2. Committees review and vote on the bill. 3. The Senate and the House debate and vote on the bill. 4. The President signs the bill—or NOT. Now the last step mean the President can SIGN or VETO the BILL. BUT if over 290 of the House of Representatives votes to override the VETO and at least 67 Members of the Senator votes to overturn the VETO then the Bills because law. Seems Fair to me that because ONE Person decide that the bill should NOT become law then a Super Majority can over ride the VETO. Now if you think I am talking about the President, you would be wrong. Let me give you an example. There is a Bill in the House of Representative, HR-969, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act that has 334 Members of the House of Representative that support the Bill. Now when I went to school I did learn the 334 is greater than 290. YET in the House Veterans Affairs Committee ONE PERSON, the Honorable Congressman Jeff Miller is deciding, since he is the Chairman that HR-969 should not go to the Floor for a VOTE, EVEN if there is more than a SUPERMAJORITY already in the House SUPPORTING the Bill. In the Senate there is ONLY 45 Members Supporting S-681, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act. This is 45% of the Senate that supports the Bill. I find it hard to believe that there wouldn’t be at least 6 more members of the Senate would vote for the Bill, but that is a guess. It would be nice if Senator Johnny Isakson would also bring the Senate Version to the Floor for a VOTE. Now to be fair to both of them I understand they were waiting for the CBO score of the Bills. The CBO has stated that the Bills will cost about $2.4 Billion over the period of 10 years. So that excuse is over. They are also waiting for a Write Up from Secretary McDonald of the VA and the VA was waiting for a Write Up from the Navy. Well the Navy has provided the Write Up telling the VA there were no way they can test a Ship that may have been exposed to Agent Orange back in the 60’s and early 70’s. Too much time has passed for anything to still be there. All members of Congress are sworn in with the following oath: ‘I AB do solemnly swear (or Affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.’ It's easy for Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans to understand this oath because it is very similar to the oath we had to take when we joined the Navy. So the oaths states they are going to follow the Constitution. It some what easy to understand, well, if you can understand the Constitution. Now MY UNDERSTANDING of the Constitution is that both the Members of the House and Senate are elected to represent the will of the people that not only elected them but who they represent. This is easy enough for me to understand. Now of course not all constituent are going to agree so they should do as a majority of the constituent want, which is if they are in favorite of the Bill it would seem that their constituent are in favorite of the Bill. Now to me it seems that at least Chairman Jeff Miller is either Breaking the Law or Violating the Constitution by not allowing the Bill to go to a floor for a vote. They are deciding what they want and not what a majority of the fellow Members of Congress are wanting. So it seems that the most Powerful Person in OUR government is NOT the President of the United States but the Chairman of the Veterans Affair Committees. These are my opinion. I’m not a lawyer; this is done with some research and guessing. I have been working for about two years helping to get the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act along with many others. I started the Blue Water Awareness Group on Facebook under 2 years ago and there we have many great members working towards the same cause in getting the Members of Congress to understand why we feel they should bring back the benefits that were taken away from Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans in 2002. Many of us have the effect of being exposed to Agent Orange; in my case I have Prostate Cancer, which is on the list of diseases that Agent Orange cause. I also have Thyroid Cancer, which there is now finding evidence that Agent Orange may cause problem with the Thyroid. Yet the VA says that I couldn’t have been exposed to Agent Orange since I was stationed on a ship. Yet there are studies both here in the US and in Australia those shows that members of the Navy may have been exposed to Agent Orange by the way of the way the water on Naval Ships distilled for cooking, cleaning, bathing and all the other reason water is used. BUT the VA along with Congressman Jeff Miller don’t believe it. Mike Yates Blue Water Navy Awareness
Robert m lind 11 months ago
I'm a USMC Vietnam Vet 67-68 we were sprayed twice while in VN A nd our drinking water was contaminated while in the QUE SON valley near Tam Ky @hill 51 I've been suffering numerous problems with my prostate ,back and lungs My oldest son born 5 years after my return to the states was born without his intestines connected to his anis and we just found out that he has mitral valve prolapse going in for surgery soon Please help me and my son My daughter was born with a mild case of Spinea a officer Robert m Lind 118 Woodard Ave Brockton aka 508-962-5055 774-517-5543 T Y
Les haverland 11 months ago
Yah they had to wait until most of the vets were already dead that way they can say whatever they want
Steve Mendiola 11 months ago
I served 4 and a half years in the Marine Corps, 2 tours in Vietnam. 1965-1966 in I corps northern part of Vietnam. My oldest Son's spine never completely formed to this date he has a short upper torso and long legs. He has always had a difficult time breathing. I spoke to my provider about my Son's condition several years ago only to be told that the VA couldn't help. I would like the VA to check his condition and help him with the condition. My name is Steve Mendiola Sgt. U.S. Marine Corps., 210-365-1127. 3771 Pebble Beach, Schertz, Texas 78108.
Ted Mkolyski 11 months ago
I served in the Air Force in 1965-1970. I did a one year tour to Vietnam- nam I was in the area that was heavily sprayed with Agent Orange. I have a son who was diagnosed with A,L.L. At age 12 years old. Feeling this could be a results of my exposure that caused this cancer. Very up set with all the suffering our son has been thru.

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