Vietnam vets worry about lasting impact of Agent Orange

By:  Nancy Remsen
Burlington Free Press

MONTPELIER — William J. Whitney of Northfield did two tours of duty in Vietnam four decades ago, but until recently he didn’t think that Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the U.S. military, might affect not only his health, but that of his children and grandchildren.

“I’m scared and I have a right to be,” Whitney testified Saturday before a small audience of other Vietnam veterans, their families, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and representatives of Vermont’s other members of Congress. “I went and served my country not knowing what my government was doing to us guys. They poisoned us.”

Other Vietnam veterans also came to the microphone, their voices full of emotion as they told of mysterious illnesses that have plagued their children and grandchildren.

“It bothers me that I got into that stuff over there,” said Andy Megrath of Rutland after recounting the health histories of several family members. “I don’t know if their problems are from me. We used to sit on 55 gallon barrels and eat lunch. There are a lot of us guys who don’t know what is going on with their families who want answers.”

John Miner, Vermont State Council president, Vietnam Veterans of America, organized Saturday’s hearing to provide Vermont’s congressional delegation with anecdotal evidence of the multi-generational health problems showing up in families of people who fought in Vietnam. These veterans want the government to investigate the illness trends that some Vietnam veterans and their families have begun to identify.

“We are fighting for all veterans, not just us,” Miner said. “Because we are standing up, our government is waking up.”

Sharon Perry drove more than seven hours from Cherryfield, Maine, to tell her story. Her husband, Reuben “Bud” Perry III, served two tours with the “brown water Navy,” working on rivers in Vietnam. He died in 2005 “after six years of one disastrous illness after another,” she said.

“My oldest daughter was sick before her father was,” Perry said. As a child, she had allergies, chronic infections and muscle spasms so severe she was unable to walk. Doctors said she was faking. Perry said now as an adult, her daughter’s list of ailments is even longer.

Perry and her daughter used the Internet to see if other families of Vietnam veterans had faced similar medical challenges. Perry said she’s been collecting stories and she handed Miner a list.

“That is the biggest thing we can do is get the word out,” Perry suggested.

Linda Schwartz, commissioner of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Connecticut, but formerly an Air Force nurse during the Vietnam War and later a researcher, recounted the results of an analysis of members of the Air Force — a re-examination of data used earlier to conclude Agent Orange and its dioxin contaminant adversely affected airmen’s offspring.

“We did find there is a significant impact from Vietnam service,” Schwartz said of the more recent study. “I’m not saying it is Agency Orange,” she explained, but added that the analysis suggested the children of Vietnam veterans “are likely a vulnerable population.” She said the unanswered questions demand further research.

“It is clear we have to continue the research,” said Sanders, who took notes and had three staff with him for the hearing. “We also have the absolute moral obligation to take care of the veterans.”

Sanders noted that Vietnam veterans fought an uphill battle just to get the government to acknowledge that chemicals used in the war led to health problems. “This has been a pretty sorry history.”

Rick Weidman, Vietnam Veterans of America executive director for policy and government affairs, said the government had a duty to study and respond to environmental wounds. “The environmental wounds are every bit as real as the gunshot wounds.”

Additional Facts

For more information about veterans health issues and Agent Orange: