By Nita Johnson
"You don't die from Agent Orange. You die from exposure to it. Your death certificate will say cancer of some kind."
Those were the words of David Cowherd, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1051, to a group of veterans and their family members during a town hall meeting last week.
Cowherd and Mokie Pratt Porter, communications director for the Vietnam Veterans organization based in Maryland, presented a program explaining some of the issues facing not only veterans who fought in Vietnam, but their children and grandchildren.
The effects of Agent Orange during that time has been pinpointed to the development of various diseases among those serving in Vietnam and other sections of southeast Asia from 1955 through 1975 when the American troops were pulled from the area.
Cowherd and Prater outlined some of the diseases that have been diagnosed in Vietnam veterans, including Hodgkin's Disease, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma as well as Parkinson's Disease, spina bifida in biological children of Vietnam veterans, Type 2 diabetes, and Ischemic heart disease. In fact, the diseases developing after the conflict in Vietnam resulted in the Department of Veterans Affairs creating an Agent Orange Registry in 1978 to address those health concerns.
"A lot of people say they were just there for a couple of months or weren't in combat," Cowherd said. "But if you had your feet on the ground in Vietnam, you were exposed to Agent Orange."
Statistics show that there were 2.8 million American troops in Vietnam in the 20-year period from 1955 through 1975, with a total of 3.4 million throughout southeast Asia. With 55 percent of Vietnam veterans now being over 60 years old, an estimated 12 percent of those have already died and another 1.5 percent projected to die each year. Approximately half of Vietnam vets have had or will develop prostate cancer, while female Vietnam veterans have reportedly had tumors, fibrosis cysts and 26 have had to have double mastectomies.
Agent Orange was a chemical used to kill the heavy foliage in Vietnam, first intended to destroy any cover from the North Vietnam troops who stormed through South Vietnam during that war. That same chemical was also stored and used in American bases such as Fort Knox, Kentucky and Fort McCullough, Alabama. Those exposed have been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy among other physical disorders.
It is said that 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other similar chemicals were used. Agent Orange was used primarily from 1965 to 1970, Agents Green, Pink and Purple dominated from 1961 through 1965, and Agents White and Blue were used from 1960 to 1971. Agent Orange was sprayed along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).
In reality, Cowherd said there have been approximately 68 diseases connected with exposure to Agent Orange. But that exposure is now affecting the children and grandchildren of those who did military duty in southeast Asia.
Former Kentucky First Lady and current candidate for Kentucky's Secretary of State Heather French Henry was featured on a video presentation as the daughter of a Vietnam veteran. In that video, Henry said her daughter was born with a small dimple in her back and has now been diagnosed with spina bifida. The child has also had some difficulties with her bowels.
Henry, who now serves as Commissioner of Veteran Affairs, said her younger daughter had also encountered some health problems and that other children and grandchildren of Vietnam veterans had developed health issues that were also connected to the female Vietnam veterans.
"Right now there is not anything for the grandchildren of Vietnam vets," Henry said.
Misdiagnosing the cause of some of the diseases that could be related to exposure to Agent Orange is another hurdle that these veterans and their families must endure.
Connie Taylor of London served in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968. Taylor said he had developed some moles that had been termed the "first stages of cancer."
"Since then, I've had 30 moles removed and was told it could be dermatitis from the sun," he said.
Cowherd said that veterans and their family members were challenged with reporting their illnesses and disorders, stating, "you must prove to the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) that these problems were caused by Agent Orange."
That is often difficult to do, and Cowherd encouraged those present to file claims with the VA with each new or recurring incident of health problems.
"The VA has never done one study on Agent Orange," Cowherd said. "Every time you have an issue, file a claim. Until we start filing claims, we'll never get anywhere."