Still Dying from Agent Orange

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As both a member of VVAW and VVA, I wish to give equal billing to VVAW on the issues surrounding Agent Orange today. In order to do that, I will post the commentary of Barry Romo, a National Coordinator for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).

This posting was taken from the THE [VVAW] VETERAN, Spring 2010 edition written prior to my most recent articles on Agent Orange and Guam.

Emphasis, links to sources, and commentary are mine.

Robert L. Hanafin, Major, U.S. Air Force-Retired, Veterans Today News Network

Still Dying from Agent Orange

In every book on VVAW, we get praised for understanding and using media to get our point across. VVAW has to isolate its enemies and gain as many friends as possible.

VVAW, with the help from our friends, got PTSD recognized as a service connected disability. When we first came across this illness, we call it Post Vietnam Syndrome. We learned more and came to understand PTSD better as we helped more of our members and other vets deal with its devastating symptoms. It was this work that led to its recognition.

We didn’t get it by burning flags or insulting our neighbors. We did it by explaining the problem and then moving forward with concrete solutions like disability payments and vets centers.

The same goes for Agent Orange poisoning. We publicized the problem, build a movement and got results even if they were limited.

It is our responsibility (today in 2010) to do that again with the upcoming comprehensive Agent Orange bill.

Veterans Today Editorial Note: This was written prior to the debate over the current Agent Orange bill.

It is vital that we help Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). We must support our brother and sister Veterans by participating in their events and fundraisers.

[On Agent Orange] VVAW was the first Veterans Organization to bring up the horrible problem of Agent Orange poisoning. AO was one of the rainbow of dioxin laced defoliants. When we first brought it up in 1971, we didn’t know it was affecting Vietnam Vets. We did know it was poisoning pregnant Vietnamese women and causing birth defects. We protested its use and the Nixon administration was forced to officially stop using it. More than 10 percent of the land in Vietnam was poisoned. In early 1978, VVAW learned through Maude DeVictor, a Chicago VA worker, that dioxin based defoliant was also poisoning Vietnam Vets.

Veterans Today Editorial Comment: Right-wing political Vets [Veterans for Nixon] who allied with the Chemical companies to deny the existence of Agent Orange the same way they downplayed the impact of PTSD – see B.G. Burkett’s Stolen Valor, tried to Swift Boat Maude DeVictor by highlighting ties she may have had with the radical Black civil rights group The Black Panthers.

VVAW was the first Vets group to bring up the question of American Vets being poisoned with defoliants like Agent Orange. In 1978, VVAW held a national investigation in Chicago into the damage done by dioxin based defoliants.

We went on from there to explain to the American people and joined a national lawsuit against the chemical companies involved in dioxin production. Victims, veterans, scientists and others concerned came and testified. We also went to Washington several times starting in the 1980s to demand disability payments for the affected veterans and compensation for their families. We were praised by some professionals for doing a professional job of lobbying.

The class action lawsuit got bigger as more and more Veterans and their families signed on. The chemical companies hit back saying that dioxin wasn’t a problem at all. Their press releases couldn’t complete with the photos of children severely affected by the poison.

In the mid-1980s the chemical companies offered a pretrial settlement of $160 million. The lawyers, including our lawyers wanted to accept this, the Veterans did not. VVAW members spoke against the settlement north, south, east and west.

We were angry. We knew that this would not even come close to covering the costs. We were thinking more like a billion and it didn’t cover the children. The few who wanted to accept the settlement were flown around the country and would arrive in limousines. Despite all the opposition from the victims themselves the judge accepted the offer and kept the issue of Agent Orange under his control so that everything in the ensuing decades would still go to him.

The lawyers took $30 million while families of Vets who died got only several thousand dollars. The settlement money of Veterans who had been on welfare because their disability kept them from working, was sent straight to the states. Despite the fact that this was the largest settlement up to that time, it took the wind out of the mass [Agent Orange] movement. People were all tired and ill. At places like Times Beach and Love Canal everyone knew that dioxin was causing cancer and birth defects. The federal government did eventually recognize a few dioxin problems as service connected.

Meanwhile the Vietnamese were and are suffering worse than we were. VVAW was one of the first groups to break travel restrictions back to Vietnam. When we would visit we would be told of the continuing birth defects, deaths and poisonings which continue to this very day. The war in Vietnam ended 35 years ago but peace and tranquility didn’t come when the bombing stopped. Dioxin is still poisoning a section of the rural Vietnamese population. People born in Vietnam are still suffering cancers, birth defects and other problems.

VVAW has gone to see this and we have sponsored trips by victims from Vietnam. As Americans we have a chance to rectify what we did to American Veterans and Vietnamese victims.

Congressman Conyers has a bill he is preparing to present to Congress. This is a comprehensive bill that would cover the Vietnamese and American victims. The war really isn’t over until the killing and maiming stop. Killing people and having people being born with birth defects is not really different from shooting them. We are calling on people of good will to endorse this legislation and to get our friends to lobby for this bill. Justice for our children and Vietnamese children calls for it.

Barry Romo is one of VVAW’s National Coordinators

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