Sun. Jan 23rd, 2022

With the talk of chemical weapons in Syria consuming our public discourse, it gives us a moment to reflect on a time when the United States once used a chemical defoliant in warfare. It was not too long ago when America circumstantially felt obligated to use chemicals in the Vietnam War. Why? The United States government and military operations felt that if we were able to destroy the jungle, our soldiers would have a better chance of victory on the battlefield. And while maybe it did give the United States a slightly better chance of “winning” a hopeless war, the repercussions of these chemicals have proved to be devastating. The VVA’s (Vietnam Veterans of America) and John Morris, the editor of the newsletter and former President of the Chester County chapter, know what has come as a result of the chemical use. “The VA has reluctantly, but thoroughly embraced the idea that we have been poisoned and we are sick with certain diseases,” Morris said.
Morris, who suffers from type 2 diabetes, a common illness that likely developed from the war, is considered one of the luckier ones. The effects on many of the Veterans has been substantial, with many facing a variety of ailments that have been crippling or even fatal. And it is not just the Veterans who are bearing the burden; it is also their kids and grandkids. “It’s not only affecting us, it’s affecting our children and we want a big wide national push to get people to understand that. This is the next big thing that is going to come out as a health problem. It is already, but we just need to get people to understand that.”
Imagine being doused in a pool of pesticides for days, weeks, months. For many Vietnam veterans, this was precisely what was happening. At the time, the soldiers (many who were already there against their wills, although the government will have you believe that 75% of them volunteered) felt the chemicals were innocuous. To them it was an afterthought. “The government thought, we’ll bomb them after we spray defoliate on them, the trees and the jungles, to get rid of all that.”
Agent Orange was just one of many chemicals used in the Vietnam War – others included Agents Purple, Pink, White, Blue, and Green, which were known as the Rainbow Herbicides. The colors had nothing to do with the spray, but with band colors on the barrels. Dow, who was one of the leading producers of Agent Orange, has advocated that there is not enough evidence supporting that the effects were caused from their chemicals. Eliminating the jungle was the main priority because it made the enemy more visible, as U.S. forces were essentially fighting an army using guerilla warfare tactics. To put it into perspective, an excessive total of 18 million gallons were used throughout the course of the war. As the war progressed, the government essentially felt that more land needed to be vanquished, so our soldiers could see who they were fighting. As a result, the chemical companies sped up production, which lead them to turn up the heat, thus creating more dioxin and hazardous chemicals in the defoliant. “If it made everything brown, they were happy,” Morris stated.
In 1984, there was a class action case that was filed out of court, as 180 million dollars of compensation was allocated among an estimated 10 million veterans. This was a hard fought battle for veterans and a small moral victory, but it hardly covered anything, and even if it did, the monetary compensation could never truly make up for the damage done. The diminutive funds that were distributed went into two programs- a payment program and a class assistance program. However, in 1997, the budget ran out, as the funds were claimed to be fully distributed. Perhaps, the most insulting part of the whole situation is the denial by not only the chemical companies, but by the government. Since these two entities claim there is no proof, (despite the overwhelming trend of similar illness and birth defects for the children among veterans) it has allowed them to successfully deny further compensation. One way that they have skirted around the issue is to make veterans show proof that they were sprayed, a task that is virtually impossible. However, the bigger concern for the chemical companies is not the veterans, but their children and grandchildren, and so forth. “It’s affecting guys like me, ideally we have 15-20 years on our life left, and that’s what the government looks at. You drag into the equation children with 60-80 year life spans; they think well, we don’t want to take care of them for that amount of time. So they’re resisting giving out benefits to the children of Veterans because of that,” Morris said.
But it’s not only affecting our veterans and their children, but the children and people of Vietnam. They had much more exposure to these chemicals. Many of these exposed children are being born without limbs, eyes, ears, among many other adverse effects. It was in the water, the food, and the wind would cause it to spread further across the land. This was an extremely corrosive substance that still has detrimental side effects for those living in the nearby area. And yet, the United States government or chemical companies such as Monsanto have taken no responsibility overseas either, and have continued to deny compensation for Vietnamese who were affected.
There are VVA chapters scattered across the country promoting the same causes. Chapter 436 of the VVA represents Chester County and has 140 members, but only about 20 remain very active members of the organization. Together, they help coordinate community service projects, but most notably they helped bring the moving wall to West Chester University’s campus (The moving wall is a replica of the memorial wall in Washington). This was a supreme honor because it marked the first college in America to display the replica of the memorial. But the cause they are still most devoted to is raising awareness and receiving benefits that will help them and their children. Currently as it stands, only one illness is recognized as a result of Agent Orange, which is Spina Bifida, a disease that impairs the spinal cord. “We want them to recognize more illnesses in veterans, we have other diseases and illnesses that we can relate back to the Agent Orange spray,” Morris pointed out.
On October 2nd from 1 p.m. – 7 p.m. at Philips Autograph library, there will be a panel to discuss the ramifications of the poisonous dioxins that were used throughout Vietnam. The Chester County chapter VVA 436 will be hosting the event, which was named in honor of Vietnam Veteran Louis F. Guillemin, who lost his life serving our country. Guillemin was a West Chester University graduate and only known M.I.A. and P.O.W. from Chester County. The event comes at an opportune time because Guillemin’s remains were recently discovered overseas and are now being shipped back to the states on October 4th. “We felt this was perfect; it was like an aligning of the stars,” Morris said. On the following day, October 5th, there will be a funeral service to commemorate Major Guillemin’s life.
Throughout the day of the event there will be a series of different speakers who will discuss the history of this topic and have the families of the victims come in and speak about the impact these chemicals have had on their lives. But the event doesn’t only cover the Vietnam War, it will also touch upon our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and how certain chemicals have affected them. For more information on scheduled speakers visit http://www.vva436.org/.
“We don’t see the end, we can’t, until our children stop being born with birth defects, it won’t end.”
This is a generational problem, one we must fight together- we can start by raising awareness.
Evan Smith is a fourth-year student majoring in political science and minoring in communications. He can be reached at ES777403@wcupa.edu. 

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