For years, I tried to forget what happened to my family in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Now all I want to do is remember.
The first to die was my father in 2003 at the age of 59. He was overweight and living in an assisted living center in Houston. Ever since his service in Vietnam, he’d struggled with too many health problems to count. My sister Ami died next in 2010 outside of Memphis, at age 39. We were closer than many siblings. One summer when I was in college at Brown, we shared a basement room in a rambling, vegetarian co-op, where she lived barefoot, an Indian bracelet jingling softly around her ankle as she paced the communal kitchen, cooking the rice she largely subsisted on. Her infectious laughter often shook the walls. But she was paralyzed and unable to breathe when she died, three years after being diagnosed with a merciless neurodegenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In 2020, I helped bury Ami’s twin sister, Missie, amid a plague of coronavirus deaths in the sticky heat of a still summer morning, in a country cemetery amid fragrant oaks and wild flowers in the woods of Central Texas. She died of heart and lung failure at age 49, alone in her apartment in Austin, after a decade-long battle with chronic lung disease, immune system problems, and mental illness that brought her in and out of mental hospitals.
As I watched Missie’s ashes being poured into the ground, I led my family in singing the old-time gospel hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Farther than ever from God, I was filled with dark thoughts that grew increasingly loud. I long thought my family’s misfortune was unique. But I discovered my family was not alone. In my research, I learned about thousands of other children born with serious health conditions after their parents had served in Vietnam—while siblings like myself who were conceived before the war remained relatively healthy.
More than 50 years had passed since my father enlisted to serve in Vietnam as a U.S. Army nurse. At that point, three out of five members of my immediate family had died prematurely in middle age, each at the cusp of their next decade. I needed to know why.
To find out why my family members died and I did not, I immersed myself, like a detective, in the science behind one of the most expensively and diligently studied—and perhaps most willfully obfuscated—environmental disasters in modern history. I discovered the emerging field of epigenetics, which explains how a father’s environmental exposure to toxic chemicals, not just a mother’s, can be transmitted to his children’s genes without ever changing the DNA sequence, with harmful effects to the body flicking on and off like a light switch, altering a host of bodily processes and functions.
I learned that the Vietnamese people, their erstwhile conquerors, and the children on both sides of the conflict born afterward have been collectively stalked by a capricious force that causes random genetic mayhem from birth through midlife and beyond, generation after generation. As with characters in a slow-moving Greek tragedy, a fatal flaw lay not just within the state and society—the flaw of engaging in “forever wars,” with their devastating environmental and social costs. The flaw has spread at the cellular level within the children of war.
My Father’s War
From 1967 to 1969, my father was a captain in the Army, tending to wounded soldiers in the 85th and 67th evacuation hospitals and in POW hospitals in and around Qui Nhon in Central Vietnam. Nurses like him often worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, preparing up to 20 soldiers an hour for surgery after they had been evacuated in waves of frequently arriving helicopters, often after being horribly disfigured by napalm, land mines, grenades, and small arms. Nurses had to quickly make life-or-death decisions during triage about who could be saved, and who would be made comfortable with pillows and morphine while they were put behind screens to die.
In his free time, my father took hundreds of photographs. Their ordinariness belies the carnage he witnessed during the height of North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive. My father’s photos depict shy Vietnamese children posing on the streets, women in conical straw hats hawking rice and vegetables in village markets, Day-Glo Buddhist cemeteries in the highlands, and sparkling white-sand beaches where soldiers surfed in scenes reminiscent of the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now.
My father’s photographs also call to mind one of his favorite TV shows, M*A*S*H, a comedy that harnessed the antics of doctors and nurses working in a field hospital during the Korean War to help Americans process their lingering despair over losing the Vietnam War. One photo of my father’s shows a grinning man, shirtless and sunning himself on a makeshift lounge chair made out of an Army stretcher while his friend props up his flip-flopped feet on a sandbag that would normally have been stacked around the field hospital’s flimsy walls to shield it from regular mortar fire.
My father helped patch up American and South Vietnamese soldiers as well as communist Vietnamese fighters, sending them all back into combat if they were able. Several of his photos depict urgent scenes of medics hustling dazed soldiers from helicopters into the hospital.
One of the war stories my father told was of sitting at his desk in the nursing station. Hearing enemy fire, he hit the floor. When he got up, he saw bullet holes lining the wall at chest level where he had been sitting.
Years after my father’s death, I found a blurry photo showing a doctor with a stethoscope treating a Vietnamese man whose eyes were wild with panic. Could he have been one of the Viet Cong soldiers my father had talked about patching up at a POW hospital and handing over to the South Vietnamese forces for what he knew was almost certain execution? Much later did I begin to suspect that my father’s nervous laugh when telling these stories suggested that he didn’t think they were really all that funny. To this day, I share the same nervous laugh when talking about something uncomfortable and true.
As I was growing up in Houston, my father sometimes told me and my sisters colorful stories about treating wounded GIs, Viet Cong POWs, and civilians who were drenched in what we now know was the dioxin-contaminated defoliant Agent Orange. The military crop-dusted Vietnam in a fine, calibrated mist in order to flush out the VietCong from the dense jungles that protected them and to drive farmers from their villages.
“When they sprayed Agent Orange up in the highlands where your father worked as a nurse in a POW camp,” my mother remembers, “the civilians would come screaming and yelling into his hospital. He’d cut off their clothes before treating them.”
Vietnam was a chemistry experiment gone horribly awry. Herbicides were sprayed at more than 50 times greater concentrations than used on any farm field, and they were many times more toxic to humans, as they were mixed with jet fuels, Agent White, malathion, and hexachlorobenzene, a pesticide in the same class as DDT. Less than 1 microgram of dioxin alone can kill an adult guinea pig. The EPA’s maximum dose of dioxin in drinking water is equivalent to 30 drops of Agent Orange in a 13 billion gallon container of water as high as the Empire State Building, estimates Patrick Hogan in his meticulously researched 2018 book Silent Spring: Deadly Autumn of the Vietnam War.
The field hospitals where my dad worked were located in Binh Dinh province—the 10th most heavily sprayed Agent Orange hotspot. The Air Force’s declassified HERBS tapes show that Agent Orange spraying in Binh Dinh province accelerated sharply starting in February 1967, peaking at 9,000 gallons every few days in mid-1968, before gradually tapering off by the end of 1969—precisely the period of time when my father served there. The nearby Phu Cat airport was among the sites of a nearly $1 billion U.S. cleanup at several air bases in Vietnam.
Hotspots in Southeast Asia are still heavily contaminated 50 years after the U.S. government blanketed jungles, rice paddies, rivers, and villages with more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides, contaminating the region with dioxin, one of the most toxic substances on the planet. Levels of dioxin in fish, ducks, chicken, and beef sold in markets in Bien Hoa, for example, were still highly contaminated with dioxin decades after the spraying ended.
The Toxic Residue of War
War not only wastes lives. It also lays waste to the earth. The U.S. military is one of the biggest polluters on the planet.
The military generates toxic waste in abundance and in an infinite variety: munitions, explosives, jet fuels, pesticides, depleted uranium, lead, and countless other hazardous chemicals. It has burned a lot of that waste around the world in open-air pits. What it hasn’t burned, it has dumped. Three out of four of the 1,200 Superfund sites in the U.S. are abandoned military sites. The military spends a billion dollars a year cleaning them up. The military is also helping to warm the planet: if the U.S. military were a country, it would rank as the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, between Peru and Portugal.
Even when the U.S. military departs in defeat—as it did in Afghanistan and before that in Vietnam—wars never really end. The damage lingers for generations, not just in the land, the air, and the water, but also in the psyches of the soldiers who fought—and as we now know, in their very cells.
The damage continues to this day among the next generation of veterans, thousands of whom have fallen sick and died after being exposed to toxins spread over Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East after the disposal of chemicals, munitions, petroleum products, plastics, and other hazardous waste materials in open-air burn pits. President Biden’s son Beau died from brain cancer that the President believes may have been linked to massive burn pits he was exposed to during his service in Iraq.
Scores of soldiers have experienced mysterious ailments that have tormented them for years, even decades, after they served. Much less well known, however, is the intergenerational genetic havoc that America’s wars have wreaked on the American children of those who served.
Take the case of Agent Orange. The chemical cocktail has short-circuited the health of hundreds of thousands of U.S. children of Vietnam veterans, estimates Heather Bowser, a cofounder of Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance (COVVHA). Bowser was born prematurely, and missing a leg and fingers, after her father’s service in Vietnam.
Many Vietnam vets and their children tell strikingly similar stories. Everything was fine with the kids conceived before Vietnam. But the children conceived afterward were plagued with unusual health conditions that previously did not exist in their families. A private group run by COVVHA has more than 5,000 members on Facebook. Many COVVHA members have reported mysterious birth defects, autoimmune diseases, cancers, fertility issues, and chronic ailments. A common way many people join the group is with a post cataloguing their family’s suffering that ends with something to the effect of “Am I alone?”
One member of COVVHA is Lori Weber, 44, of Canton, Michigan. Her father, Donald Schoenemann, 73, served in Vietnam in 1967 as a sergeant and reconnaissance specialist in D Troop of the 7–17th Air Cavalry, known at the time as the “Ruthless Riders.” Schoenemann would spend long nights in the jungles of the Central Highlands of Vietnam and in Cambodia, crawling through barren fields soon after they had been sprayed with a sticky, sweet-smelling substance that sometimes also rained down on him and his fellow soldiers.
Weber showed me a photo that her father took as he lay in a clearing where his chopper had landed. All around him, the former jungle was withered and desiccated, like straw. The photo helped him prove to the VA that he was exposed to Agent Orange, and the VA later recognized Schoenemann as 100% Agent Orange disabled for Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), meaning he has a total disability preventing him from working. He has tremors that are now getting worse, and he can’t feed or care for himself.
It turns out that the cartilage of Weber’s hip joint had been slowly deteriorating as she was growing up. One day, she was walking down the sidewalk with her third-grade son when she suddenly fell face down, her foot rotated in the wrong direction and her hip dislocated. At age 32, she was diagnosed with all three forms of hip dysplasia, which is a problem with how well the thigh bone fits into the hip socket. She has since had multiple spinal surgeries for her spina bifida occulta and related defects of the spine. In total, she has had 30 surgeries.
Weber’s 16-year-old son was born prematurely and has severe asthma, extreme flexibility in his elbows and shoulders, difficulty swallowing, and a painfully twisted neck. Weber had two miscarriages before having him. Weber’s endocrinologist, Dr. Sander J. Paul, a professor of internal medicine at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine outside Detroit, Michigan, wrote a remarkable letter to the VA in 2014 to support her still unsettled disability claim for second-generation Agent Orange exposure. “I am inclined to believe that Lori Weber’s father (through his exposure to Agent Orange) … passed on a presumed genetic mutation to his daughter causing her birth defects and abnormal healing of cartilage and bone,” Dr. Paul wrote. Weber says the guilt that her father lives with because of her disability is heart-wrenching. She estimates she has spoken at 18 town hall meetings for veterans around Michigan, and she has met many others like her dad. “Every time I speak, I get off the stage and the veterans come up to me crying and apologizing,” she says. “My heart just breaks that they take it as their fault, when it is not.”
One more thing Weber noted—which may be purely anecdotal—is that many of the hundreds of vets she has talked to say their health rapidly deteriorated around age 60, and with a lot of their children, things worsened around age 30, similar to my father and sisters.
An estimated 2 to 4 million Americans served in Vietnam, along with hundreds of thousands of Australians, New Zealanders, and South Koreans. If each one of the millions of American and other allied veterans had an average of two children after the war, as many as 8 million children of these non-Vietnamese veterans from Vietnam could be potentially affected. If 10% developed health problems, that would total over 1 million children. This doesn’t include the estimated 3 million Vietnamese whose health has been seriously affected, and who continue to be born with staggering rates of birth defects.
COVVHA cofounder Heather Bowser has traveled to Vietnam multiple times. On one visit, she toured the area where the long-closed 24th evacuation hospital had once operated in Long Binh, near the former Bien Hoa air base. The hospital was similar to the one where my father served, with a nearby air base where flyers took off to spray Agent Orange. She learned that these airmen were oftentimes ordered to dump any remaining chemicals into a nearby river rather than fly back with a full load. It was the same river that supplied the base’s water, which was also used to wash soldiers’ clothes.
Agent Orange was routinely sprayed around the tents of soldiers and medical staff to control weeds, sometimes by nurses and doctors themselves, and the chemical was often used to clear the ground for the construction of evacuation hospitals and air bases, which explains why the concentrations there are often high to this day.
“Some people think that Agent Orange exposure only came from being in the jungle,” says Bowser. “But now we know our men and women were exposed no matter where they were.”
Bowser says her dad, Bill, a steel worker in Steubenville, Ohio, died of a massive heart attack at age 50 when Bowser was 24 years old. He routinely saw areas sprayed with Agent Orange: “The area would green up really quick, and then it would be completely dead,” she says. “And that’s kind of like what happened with the Vietnam veterans as well.”
Many Vietnam vets would come home seemingly healthy after the war, but their health was fleeting, like the plants sprayed with Agent Orange. She has seen many young Vietnam vets become ill and die of “old men’s diseases” long before their time.
Her mother continued to fight the VA for her father’s benefits until they were posthumously awarded in the 2000s. “I honestly feel like the children of Vietnam veterans will be treated in the same manner: Different generations, deny until we die,” Bowser says.
A Toxic Legacy
My father was never the same after he came back from Vietnam. A relatively idealistic, cheerful man returned fundamentally changed, my relatives told me consistently. After working nights at the now closed Letterman Army Hospital on San Francisco’s Presidio Army Base, my father was angry, withdrawn, and depressed. He slept all day, and my mother seldom saw him. She remembers raising us kids mostly alone in those difficult times up until their divorce when I was five years old. My father once hit her so hard he partially detached her retina.
Upon coming back to the United States, my father worked for 20 years with veterans locked up in the psychiatric wards of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. He would describe chaotic scenes restraining patients that were straight out of the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which starred Jack Nicholson as the rebellious leader of a mental institution.
Over his life, my father endured a cascade of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), immune system disorders, skin problems, and mental health issues. He lost his right foot to diabetes and peripheral neuropathy and underwent triple bypass surgery.
Like many veterans, my dad battled the VA for decades to receive the medical care and disability benefits he felt he was owed for his Agent Orange exposure. And like many veterans, he was consistently denied benefits, until he was mysteriously granted them. Records I have obtained show that the VA would eventually declare my father to be partially disabled from his exposure to Agent Orange, covering his medical conditions dating back to 1986.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush approved the Agent Orange Act, which required that the VA treat the growing list of diseases associated with Agent Orange and other herbicides. As a result of the related Nehmer class-action lawsuit, the VA would pay an estimated $4.5 billion in retroactive benefits to Vietnam veterans for health conditions resulting from their Agent Orange exposure, as well as tens of billions of dollars more each year in ongoing benefits.
Diseases Associated with Agent Orange
The VA recognizes the following health problems as conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange for which veterans are eligible for benefits:
- AL amyloidosis
- Bladder cancer
- Cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea, and bronchus
- Chronic B-cell leukemias
- Diabetes mellitus type 2
- Hodgkin’s disease
- Ischemic heart disease
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Parkinson’s disease
- Peripheral neuropathy, early-onset
- Porphyria cutanea tarda
- Prostate cancer
- Soft tissue sarcomas
PHOTO: US Army helicopter sprays Agent Orange in Vietnam. Wikimedia.
My father eventually received a rating of up to 60% disability from the VA for the heart disease, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy he suffered from. He died in 2003 following more than a week in a coma, after being found unconscious in his assisted living room. From what I pieced together, it could have been a prescription drug overdose that killed him.
Out of the blue, in 2014, I received a letter from the VA informing me, in typical government bureaucratese, that my father was owed more than $63,000 for long-denied Agent Orange disability claims. As next of kin, my sister Missie and I received my father’s retroactive compensation more than a decade after he was buried.
The Diseases We Inherit
It was long thought that damage to an embryo caused by environmental exposure in men could result only from changes in the DNA of sperm. That was the main route imagined for the transmission of genetic mutations, since men contribute their DNA to an egg through their sperm.
But scientists are starting to understand that men can also pass down birth defects through what is known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance (TEI). Dioxin and many other environmental toxins can modify a cell’s genetic material without altering DNA, through the regulation of what’s known as the epigenome.
Epigenetics is the study of how behaviors and the environment can affect the way genes work, turning genes on or off and changing their ability to form proteins. Changes introduced during the epigenetic process can lead to errors that ultimately cause diseases such as cancer, metabolic disorders, and degenerative disorders; a predisposition for such diseases can then be passed down to offspring, generation after generation.
Linda Birnbaum is a leading U.S. toxicologist and Agent Orange expert who has studied the effects of dioxin and other environmental contaminants for decades. She told me that epigenetics is a “likely mechanism” for male-mediated transmission of birth defects in veterans. Before she retired in 2018 after disagreeing with the actions by the Trump administration’s EPA, Birnbaum was the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a $775 million agency that’s part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“I think the military wants to avoid any liability,” she says. “They’ll do anything they can to do that.”
For a long time, there was really no clear human data showing paternal effects from dioxin exposure, says Birnbaum. But a large number of recent studies have shown a clear link between dioxin exposure and mutations in animals. For instance, a 2012 study in PLOS One by Mohan Manikkam and colleagues found that dioxin exposure in pregnant female rats caused a multitude of adult-onset diseases not just in a rat’s children, but also in its grandchildren.
Birnbaum says only one long-term study exists of paternal transmission of genetic defects following dioxin exposure. The U.S. Air Force conducted it on the men who flew the aircraft that sprayed Agent Orange. They flew “low and slow” like crop-dusters over the treetops, straight into enemy fire, taking the most enemy hits of any aircraft in the Air Force. These “Ranch Handers” were highly exposed to dioxin as they physically handled barrels of Agent Orange and as the clouds of toxic herbicides drifted back into their aircraft while they were spraying over the jungles of Vietnam.
In its longitudinal study of the 2,613 Ranch Handers from 1982 to 2002, the Air Force failed to find a connection between Agent Orange exposure and any health problems in veterans, as well as between Agent Orange and any birth defects and health problems in veterans’ children. It did find an elevated rate of birth defects, particularly of nervous system defects. But a scientist involved in the Air Force’s Ranch Hand Study has charged that his superiors altered results and methodology to cause the findings to appear less statistically conclusive, and a 1994 report had faulted the Ranch Hand Study for numerous methodological lapses, including the exclusion of critical data.
To address methodological concerns such as these, the Air Force released the full data set of the Ranch Hand Study to the Vietnam Veterans Association for independent analysis. In a previously unreported study, Emeritus Professor George Knafl of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that the children of Ranch Handers with high dioxin levels were nearly twice as likely to have a major birth defect as the children of both non-Ranch Hand participants and Ranch Hand participants having lower dioxin levels. The upshot: Having a high dioxin level was significantly related to having children with major birth defects.
Linda Schwartz, a highly decorated Air Force nurse who treated wounded soldiers evacuated from Vietnam to Japan and who became an expert about women veterans exposed to Agent Orange, confirmed the significance of Knafl ’s 2018 findings. As former assistant secretary of veterans affairs for policy and planning under President Obama, the retired Air Force major and loyal “blue-suiter” has testified more than two dozen times before Congress. “I have a long and storied history of fighting the Air Force Ranch Hand Study,” she told me. “I don’t think the study did justice to the Air Force.”
In 2007, my family began to seriously suspect that my father’s Agent Orange exposure could have also somehow affected my sisters’ health. That year, my sister Ami was diagnosed with ALS, a rare and devastating neurodegenerative disease that causes paralysis and near-certain death within two to five years of diagnosis for the vast majority of people. She lived outside Memphis, an hour’s drive from where my family once had a farm in northern Mississippi.
The first inkling that Ami had ALS was after the birth of her second child. She couldn’t hold up her left arm and started wearing a sling to help breastfeed him. After a painful spinal tap, the doctor bluntly told Ami that she had ALS. It became clear that the diagnosis was correct; in no time at all, she needed a hulking motorized wheelchair to get around. Once on a visit, I cut up food for my paralyzed younger sister and fed her. I bumbled around trying, without much skill, to help transfer her into her bed at night.
Ami passed away in 2010 after suffocating to death. She had just reached the stage where she couldn’t quite breathe on her own without assistance, like many ALS patients.
I have now learned that dioxin exposure significantly increases the risk of ALS. The connection between Agent Orange and ALS in the children of veterans hasn’t been studied, but scientists know that U.S. veterans from all wars are twice as likely to suffer from ALS, a disease that the military now automatically presumes to be service-connected for those unlucky enough to suffer and quickly die from it.
The death of my other sister, Missie, Ami’s twin, came a decade later. She collapsed suddenly in her apartment in Austin, in the summer of 2020, while tethered to the oxygen that she used after nearly dying seven years earlier while in a coma with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)—a condition that also affects COVID-19 patients— following a bout of the H1N1 flu. She also cycled in and out of psychiatric hospitals for bipolar disorder. The lung, immune system, and mental health conditions she suffered from are quite common among the children of veterans conceived after their service in Vietnam.
“Your father told me he wished he’d never had the girls,” a relative told me about my sisters, after Missie’s passing. “Because of his immune system, they were compromised. He was glad you were conceived before he went to Vietnam.”
A wave of survivor’s guilt crashed over me.
Cataloguing the Suffering
What my family experienced is incredibly common: children conceived by male veterans before Vietnam were healthy, while those conceived after Vietnam were terribly sick.
A groundbreaking 2016 investigation from ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot found that the odds of having a child born with birth defects and severe health problems were more than one third higher for veterans exposed to Agent Orange than for those who weren’t. Ten years earlier, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 22 studies of Agent Orange and birth defects, published in 2006 in the International Journal of Epidemiology, finding an almost doubling of the risk of birth defects on average, with three times higher risk among the Vietnamese, who were often more highly exposed.
A previously unreported analysis that I have uncovered from the advocacy group Birth Defect Research for Children compared 2,189 children of fathers who were Vietnam veterans with 3,778 children of non-veteran fathers. The group found a host of profound differences between the two populations.
Executive Director Betty Mekdeci says that after the group’s National Birth Defect Registry was founded in 1990, results immediately began pouring in showing much higher rates of structural birth defects like spina bifida, cleft palate, heart and limb defects, and muscle defects from the children of Vietnam veterans. The group has assembled the largest private registry of the children of veterans in existence.
Mekdeci thinks the links between Agent Orange and structural birth defects may be just the “tip of the iceberg.” The more frequent outcomes of prenatal exposure to dioxin may be in the area of immunological, neurological, and neuroendocrine problems—what are now known as “functional” birth defects, which the NIH has also recognized.
Her registry started finding numerous reports of significantly higher levels among veterans’ children of functional birth defects such as cancers and tumors; immune disorders such as chronic infections; endocrine disorders such as thyroid disease and diabetes; learning, attention, and behavioral problems; gastrointestinal problems; and allergy, asthma, and skin problems.
At the request of veterans, the group added questions to its registry about the grandchildren of Vietnam veterans. So far it has included about 300 grandchildren. Mekdeci is seeing the same pattern in grandchildren as in the children of veterans.
To determine how dioxin could be affecting the children and grandchildren of Agent Orange-exposed veterans, the VA is currently conducting two long-delayed studies that are among the efforts that Congress ordered in 2016 through the Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act. The studies could signal that the government is once again preparing to expand benefits to millions more people in poor health. That would also potentially open up the government to billions of dollars in benefits and health care owed not only to Americans and other allies, but also to the Vietnamese people.
Final Coda for Survivors
The Air Force project to spray toxic herbicides over Vietnam to clear the jungle, destroy food supplies, and force Vietnamese civilians to resettle in U.S.-run camps was an enormous operation, damaging or destroying 3 to 5 million acres of forest and a half million acres of crops—more than 10 percent of Vietnam. It affected an estimated 4.8 million Vietnamese and American troops.
Beginning in the 1980s, millions of veterans have been party to lawsuits and court cases. The largest was a 1984 out-of-court settlement on behalf of 2.4 million Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, directed at seven chemical companies that manufactured the herbicides, including Dow and Monsanto, since veterans cannot legally sue the U.S. government for personal injuries suffered while in service, unless they can prove medical malpractice. The companies ultimately agreed to pay $240 million in compensation to the veterans or their next of kin as a result of an unprecedented mass class-action toxic tort case, the first in American legal history.
Over the years, however, the VA has matched these legal settlements with frequent denials of disability benefits, like it did with my father all of his life. Under legal and legislative pressure it has paired those denials with mysteriously granted additions to the long list of diseases linked to Agent Orange, three more of which Congress approved on January 1, 2021.
One potential avenue for justice among those exposed is the Victims of Agent Orange Act of 2021, proposed by Rep. Barbara Lee in June 2021. The bill has been repeatedly introduced over the years and has had bipartisan cosponsors. It would direct the VA to research Agent Orange health issues among U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers and citizens, and would specifically provide compensation and medical care for the children of male Vietnam veterans who are affected by certain birth defects, as well as the children of Vietnamese or Vietnamese Americans whose relatives were exposed. If the U.S. had a social safety net and healthcare system that covers all disabled kids without hassle, regardless of income, this legislation wouldn’t be necessary.
Paying for children’s health care and living expenses is only the start of what the U.S. government could do. Lori Weber and many other veterans and children disabled by Agent Orange want the government to complete a health study of the children of Vietnam veterans. She says it’s only fair that the 18 presumptive birth defects already recognized for female Vietnam Veterans be extended to male veterans so their children can also receive monthly compensation and medical care. Weber would also like to see children covered under the VA program that currently pays for some of the health care costs of the spouses of disabled and deceased veterans.
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden called for expanding the list of Agent Orange-connected diseases, and promised action to publish long-delayed studies on the effects of Agent Orange in the descendants of exposed veterans. “We have to right this wrong and make sure nothing like this ever happens again,” Biden said to veterans.
But the issue is even larger than lending a hand to the millions of innocent victims of war and helping them achieve a true measure of health, dignity, and security. It’s about the dirty business of war itself. Claiming ignorance or feigning disinterest is no strategy to protect the planet from the literal and figurative toxicity inherent in waging war. Americans are fooling themselves if they think the military has “gone green” with fleets using biofuels, or with battery-powered drones killing people remotely. As we speak, war is spreading toxins around the world. The health and environmental impacts of wars will continue to be felt for generations to come, long after the wars themselves are over.
Of course, governments like our own will promise to do better in the future. But can veterans and their children ever forgive what’s happened in the past, and what continues to happen in the present?
Writing about a dead child in Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner composed his most famous line from his magnolia-lined home at Rowan Oak in Oxford, where I took walks, sometimes with my sister Ami, as a freshman at the University of Mississippi before I transferred to Brown.
I hope someday to take part in a performance of one of the many requiems I’ve sung over the years as a professional choral singer. This time, however, I pray that the requiem will be for the veterans, children, and other victims felled by Agent Orange.
Like the supplicants of ancient religious rites, we will once again intone these words in memory of the dead: “Have mercy on us. Deliver us. And grant us rest.”