One of my first experiences with working with a veteran included being introduced to Agent Orange. Even the name sounds like it’s from a spy novel! Mysterious, dangerous, sinister…deadly, and not only to the enemy.
Agent Orange was a defoliant used by the U.S. government to clear jungle growth to expose snipers. There are many stories of how American soldiers were contaminated. One friend was a “Farmhand.” He told me how his Sargent came to his unit and said, “Any of you boys come off a farm?” When he said yes, he was told to follow the Sargent out. They went to a helicopter where he was told his job was to load barrels into the helicopter and dump the contents into the sprayer. He said he and the other man he was working with took their shoes off so they wouldn’t get the fluid that slopped out of the barrels on their shoes as they poured. Instead they stood in the puddle with bare feet. That fluid was Agent Orange. Other veterans have told me of hiking through the jungle and hearing the helicopters flying overhead spraying and feeling the mist drift down onto them. Now, half a century later, these men are fighting the effects of Agent Orange poisoning.
Exposure to Agent Orange could have occurred by soldiers breathing the chemical in, ingesting it in contaminated food or water, or absorbing it through the skin, the eyes, or breaks in the skin. One of the challenges in assessing the health effects of exposure has been determining how much any individual veteran was exposed.
The VA has recognized that certain health conditions are so often found in Viet Nam veterans that they are now called “presumptive diseases.” This means that veterans and surviving spouses may be eligible for disability compensation or survivors’ benefits. The current list of those presumptive diseases includes:
• AL Amyloidosis- a rare disease caused when an abnormal protein, amyloid, enters tissues or organs.
• Chronic B-cell Leukemia- a type of cancer that affects white blood cells.
• Chloracne- similar to acne, chloracne must be at least 10% disabling within one year of exposure to herbicides.
• Diabetes Mellitus Type 2- usually called late on-set diabetes.
• Hodgkin’s Disease- caused by a reduced supply of blood to the heart.
• Ischemic Heart Disease-caused by a reduced supply of blood to the heart.
• Multiple Myeloma- cancer of the plasma cells.
• Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma- cancers that affect the lymph glands and other lymphatic tissues.
• Parkinson’s Disease- a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects muscle movement.
• Peripheral Neuropathy- Acute and Sub-Acute- numbness, tingling, and motor weakness in the nervous system.
• Porphyria Cutanea Tarda- dysfunction of the liver and thinning/blistering of the skin in sun-exposed areas.
• Prostate Cancer- one of the most common cancers among men.
• Respiratory Cancers- cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea, and bronchus.
• Soft Tissue Sarcomas- cancers in body tissues such as muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels and connective tissues.
• Certain birth defects in children of Vietnam and Korean Veterans are also presumed.