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Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange

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"I died in Vietnam, but I didn’t even know it," said a young Vietnam vet on the Today Show one morning in 1978, shocking viewers across the country. Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange—the first book ever written on the effects of Agent Orange—tells this young vet’s story and that of hundreds of thousands of other former American servicemen. During the war, the US sprayed an estimated 12 million gallons of Agent Orange on Vietnam, in order to defoliate close to 5 million acres of its land. "Had anyone predicted that millions of human beings exposed to Agent Orange/dioxin would get sick and die," scholar Fred A. Wilcox writes in the new introduction to his seminal book, "their warnings would have been dismissed as sci-fi fantasy or apocalyptic nonsense." Told in a gripping and compassionate narrative style that travels from the war in Vietnam to the war at home, and through portraits of many of the affected survivors, their families, and the doctors and scientists whose clinical experience and research gave the lie to the government whitewash, Waiting for an Army to Die tells a story that, thirty years later, continues to create new twists and turns for Americans still waiting for justice and an honest account of what happened to them. Vietnam has chosen August 10—the day that the US began spraying Agent Orange on Vietnam—as Agent Orange Day, to commemorate all its citizens who were affected by the deadly chemical. The new second edition of Waiting for an Army to Die will be released upon the third anniversary of this day, in honor of all those whose families have suffered, and continue to suffer, from this tragedy.
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In writing about Agent Orange, I do not wish to create yet another stereotype of Vietnam veterans. More than one hundred thousand veterans have undergone the Veteran Administration’s “Agent Orange examination” while thousands more have applied for service-connected disability due to their exposure to Agent Orange. But this does not mean that all veterans are sick, dying, or have fathered children with birth defects. When I use the term “veteran,” I am referring specifically to those men and women who served in Vietnam and who believe they were exposed to toxic chemicals. Some veterans are bitter at having served in a war they consider a “waste,” while others would willingly return to Southeast Asia if called upon by their government (the majority of men who served in Vietnam volunteered for duty there). And just as there is no unanimity among veterans about the war, they often disagree on how best to go about convincing the government to take their complaints seriously. Regardless of how they feel about Vietnam, and in spite of their political differences, all of the veterans with whom I spoke share a common desire: They wish to see those veterans who are too sick to work or who are dying from cancer compensated for their illnesses, and they want the VA to show good faith regarding the health and welfare of Vietnam veterans.

I wish to thank John and Deborah Green for providing me with valuable research material and moral support; Andy Wilkinson, Joe Cole, Dave Martin, Frank Richetti, Jerry Strait, Wayne Wilson, Paul Sutton; and all of the men and women who have refused to be defeated by government stonewalling, bureaucratic shell games, and the contempt of multinational corporations. I also wish to thank the courageous, tough, and extraordinarily loving women who have fought side by side with their husbands, lovers, brothers, or friends on this issue. The mothers who care for the Agent Orange children, the wives who try to ease their husbands’ pain, widows who have refused to give in to bitternes; s or despair, and the grieving parents of young men who succumbed to cancer and other Agent Orange induced illnesses should also be remembered. All of you have been a source of inspiration to me and to countless others. I thank you. I salute you.


Vietnam Veterans are America’s Future

A visitor to Ronald Anderson’s home might find some of his habits rather odd. Passing a small oval mirror in the living room he seems to avert his face. In the dining room he stands with his back to a rectangular mirror, set, it appears, to reflect a child’s drawing on the opposite wall. But it soon becomes clear that he is no more peculiar than anyone else would be in his situation. Anderson* refuses to look in the mirror because he doesn’t wish to see that his thick curly black hair (he had been nicknamed “the bear”) has fallen out, reappearing in patches that protrude from his skull like tiny white brooms. Nor does he wish to see that his once-handsome face is covered with a rash, or that, during periods of sudden weight loss, his cheeks are sunken and his eyes look like those of a dying cat. At thirty-six Anderson simply doesn’t want to see the reflection of an old man.

Avoiding mirrors, of course, does nothing to make his chest pains go away, restore his coordination, stop the recurrent bouts of dizziness, or explain the chronic nausea from which he suffers. At times Anderson’s muscles are so weak that he is unable to open a jar of peanut butter for his children; and there are days when he sits for hours, sometimes until long after the sun has set, waiting for a suicidal depression to pass, struggling to remember that things were not always like this, that once he could walk miles in a full field-pack without tiring, do hours of calisthenics without complaining. He passed through basic training, he wrote friends back home, “with a smile.” Once he could easily manipulate the straps of his parachute as he glided toward the ground during training exercises with the 101 Airborne.

Sometimes when he thinks about these things he removes a scrapbook and leafs through the photographic proof that he was not always old before his time; and he sees, squeezed between a snapshot of a Vietnamese bar girl and a fading picture of a buddy who did not survive the war, a photograph that he clearly recalls taking. It is a picture of a C-123 spraying not more than half a mile from where he was standing. While staring at the photograph Anderson slowly becomes aware that he is afraid. But it is not, he realizes, simply because it reminds him of the twelve months he spent in the bush. That was a different kind of fear, one that for the most part he has been able to leave behind. The nightmares come less frequently now, and his limbs tremble not because he has flashed to a particularly horrible ambush or firefight. He is afraid because, after three years of tests, consultations, prescriptions, X-rays and hospitalization, doctors are still unable to tell him why he is a physical wreck or what, if anything, can be done to stop the progress of this mysterious disease.

There are times, Anderson admits, when he almost wishes he had cancer. Because then it might be possible to remove the malignant portion of his body and arrest the spread of disease. Or perhaps he would be given chemotherapy and eventually his health would return. Much of the time he feels, Anderson tells visitors, like a house infested with termites. The porch is collapsing, the foundation crumbling, the walls so deteriorated a child could push them over, but the parasites remain hidden and no one can explain why the house is tumbling down. He is afraid, he has discovered, not of dying, but of the unknown.

Looking at a photograph of himself at the age of eighteen, Anderson feels a sense of pride. His boots glisten in the sun and his girlfriend and mother stand on each side of him, staring proudly at the set of jump wings that have just been pinned to his uniform. Vietnam had not been a difficult decision for him. His grandfather had fought in the Argonne Forest, his father had landed on Normandy, an uncle had won a bronze star in Korea, and by 1969, when he arrived at Tan Son Nhut, he had already lost one member of his high school football team to the Tet Offensive.

As he stares at the thirteen-year-old photograph, the former paratrooper feels torn by conflicting emotions. He has not lost his love for America, but the tears in his eyes are those of rage rather than pride. “Ask not what your country can do for you …” The words reverberate through the room. He remembers a Pakistani doctor (it seemed to him at the time that most of the physicians at the VA were from foreign countries) explaining in halting English that he could not understand Anderson’s questions about Agent Orange, then signing papers ordering that he be held for observation in the hospital’s psychiatric ward. He recalls the first check he received from the VA. It amounted to forty-eight dollars and would be sent each month, said the VA, not because they believed he was suffering from exposure to Agent Orange, but to help him cope with his “war-related” neurosis. Anderson smiles. He had taken the check into his backyard and, tearing the “insult” into tiny pieces, scattered it, as he once had his father’s ashes, to the winds.

Disappearing into his bedroom Anderson returns with a file drawer from which he removes reports, copies of rejection letters from the VA, and letters he has written to Congress, the VA, scientists, the president. “Do you realize,” asks Anderson, “that there are 125,000 Vietnam era veterans in jails or prisons and another 375,000 on parole, probation, or some other form of supervised release?” How many of these men, Anderson wonders, suffer from the sudden mood swings symptomatic of dioxin exposure? How many of the violent rages, which may have resulted in their incarceration, were due to the release of dioxin into their bloodstream during sudden weight losses—quite possibly causing psychological imbalances? More than 25 percent of all the inmates in state and federal penitentiaries are Vietnam veterans, but has anyone done a fat biopsy study to determine what percentage of these men might be carrying dangerous levels of TCDD-dioxin in their body fat? Could it be that we are paying millions of dollars each year to imprison several battalions of the first army in human history to be poisoned by its own government?

Holding up a recent edition of his hometown paper, Anderson points to a by-line which reads: “$2 Million for Agent Orange Studies Funded.” “The bulk of the reassigned money,” Anderson reads, his voice shaking with disgust, “will be used for the controversial epidemiological study the VA was ordered to do by Congress three years ago, as well as other Agent Orange projects the VA has planned.” Squinting at the paper, Anderson adds that the VA has decided to do “ten new research projects on Agent Orange.” The projects will be completed, according to Robert Nimmo of the VA, in five years. Tearing the article from the paper and folding it into squares, Anderson tosses the bulk of the paper into the woodstove. Then he turns and, with his back to the mirror, addresses me as though I were the only person to have remained for the final act of a very, very long play.

“Five years,” he says, “five more years. I think I’ve got it now. I think we’ve all got it now. They’re just waiting. They are waiting for us all, every fucking one of us, to die.”

Are we really just waiting for an army to die? In a number of ways the Agent Orange issue is analogous to a murder trial where during the course of the proceedings the prosecutor produces a corpus delicti, witnesses to the crime, even a confession from the murderer, but all to no avail. The judge, for reasons about which one can only speculate, simply refuses to concede that a crime has been committed, dismissing members of the jury with the rather quaint admonishment that he may be calling on them again “in a few years.” If the VA denies that there is scientific evidence of the effects of TCDD-dioxin on human beings, and if its administrators continue to insist that Vietnam veterans cannot prove they were exposed to toxic chemicals, then how is it possible for veterans to present their case? In spite of the VA’s many rhetorical flourishes of concern, the issue, if one accepts the agency’s arguments, is a moot point for still another five years.

Perhaps it is time to remove the Agent Orange issue to another jurisdiction. One way to accomplish this would be for Congress to establish an independent board of inquiry comprised of world experts on toxic chemicals, physicians knowledgeable about the health effects of TCDD-dioxin, Vietnam veterans, and members of the legislature. By taking the entire matter out of the hands of the VA, the American taxpayer will save millions of dollars that might otherwise be spent on redundant studies, resolve some of the urgent questions that have gone unanswered for too many years and, most important, convince the men and women who served in Vietnam that their fellow countrymen do not consider them a “throwaway army.”

When asked why more hasn’t been done to resolve the Agent Orange issue and provide disability to the sick and dying, many veterans reply that the real issue is money. How much, they ask, are Vietnam veterans worth? And the answer is invariably the same: “As little as possible.” If the principal manufactures of herbicides and the federal government agree on anything, it is that neither wants to be stuck with the bill for compensating thousands of veterans for their illnesses. Other veterans see themselves as scapegoats for an unpopular war. In our haste to forget the pain and divisiveness of the Vietnam era, they say, we have chosen to simply forget about them. Finally, there are those who believe that the Agent Orange issue is a puzzle, with some of the pieces still missing. In time, they argue, a memo will surface from Washington and catapult the nation into an “Orangegate.” What had seemed for so many years a controversy will turn out to be a conspiracy.

Perhaps all of these explanations are true, but I think the real answer to why this tragedy continues was given to me one evening by a Vietnam veteran. “You know,” he said, “I don’t think they’ll ever really settle this thing because there’s just too much money involved. It’s gonna cost the chemical companies or the American government billions, and people just don’t think we’re worth that much. But I just want the American people to know something. They can write me and my children off if they want to. They can say we lost the war or we’re all crazy or any bullshit they like. But what they don’t know right now is that we are their future. What has happened to us will happen to them, and they better believe it because when it comes down, when they start to get sick, when their kids start to die and are born deformed or dead, they’ll wonder why they wouldn’t listen to us. I got nothing against anybody. I’m not as gung-ho as I was when I was eighteen, but this is still my country. But I just can’t understand why people don’t understand that what they dumped on us over there in Nam they’ll be dumping right here tomorrow. So when you go back to write your book, just tell people this: I may die, my brothers may die. Maybe we don’t really have any future, but if we don’t who the hell really does?”

Could it be that our willingness to ignore the suffering of thousands of Vietnam veterans is an attempt to avoid looking into our own future? Is it possible that in watching a twenty-eight-year old veteran like Paul Reutershan die of cancer we may be witnessing the death of our own son or daughter from the effects of radiation, dioxin, PCBs, or a host of chemicals that inundate our air and water and are contained in the very food we eat? Or that seeing a photograph of Kerry Ryan, born with sixteen birth defects, or Lori Strait, born with the left half of her brain missing, we are experiencing fears that, as future parents, we find unthinkable? But even if we choose to avoid looking at what has happened to Vietnam veterans, the fact remains that 50 percent of all US groundwater is either contaminated or threatened with contamination, that this year more deaths will be due to air pollution than car accidents, and that more children die in the United States each year from cancer than from any other disease.

On July 22, 1980, Christopher H. Johnson, a Vietnam veteran who had lost his right leg and part of his hearing in Vietnam, and whose son died after being born with multiple birth defects, told the Subcommittee on Medical Facilities and Benefits: “Don’t you think that it is only right to take care of the American men who supported you first. We are natural-born citizens of the United States of America. We have been reaching out for years for help. Now is the time for you to step forward and take the responsibility and appropriate action. Don’t leave us with the only benefit remaining, which is the burial benefit. A lot of Vietnam veterans have already used it much too early in life. The Vietnam veteran never had a chance to enjoy adulthood. Now I can’t enjoy growing old. The evidence and facts have been in for years. Agent Orange is a killer.”

Christopher H. Johnson is a Vietnam veteran, but his testimony could be that of any American parent or victim of toxic poisoning. Although the Vietnam War has ended, the Vietnamization of America continues unabated. Vietnam veterans are our future, and however painful that may be for us to admit, our future is now.

* Ronald Anderson is a composite portrait.


Dying Down Under

Sweeping his empty beer stein aside, Jim Wares places his left hand on the table, fingers outstretched and pressed tightly together. His right hand forms an ax, which he raises in an eyebrow salute then slams down on the supine fingers and thumb of his left hand.

“If you took a guillotine just dropped it straight across, including the top of the thumb, that is his hand. There’s a little bud there, and a bud there,” pointing to the first and fourth knuckle, “and a hole here where the finger should be, and then one here. And you could honestly put a spirit level across there and it’s so even that it’s as though an ax had fallen and chopped them right off. But in spite of it all, it’s mild compared to a lot of things that other veterans’ children suffer from.”

Wares signals the bartender, who—moonwhite, emaciated, and bored—delivers another round to the table, then settles down in front of the television. On Wide World of Sports a boxer, inspired by a delirious crowd, is battering his opponent unconscious. Three men at the bar give a desultory cheer as the referee steps between the two contestants and stop the fight. “I thought he was going to kill the poor bastard,” Wares announces, breaking the bitter silence that has followed his description of his son’s birth defect. The interview, stalled as others have behind a wall of anger, continues.

By 1962, Wares explains, the Australian government had committed thirty military instructors to Vietnam, a number that was increased to approximately one hundred by 1965. But by then the South Vietnamese government appeared to be floundering. The war against “communist insurgents” was going poorly, and a plea went out to the United States and Australia for more help. Convinced that the insurgency was part of a “thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific oceans,” a move that would mean a direct threat to his country, the Australian prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, agreed to send a full infantry battalion to Vietnam. As the Australian government’s involvement in the war increased, its troops were given an area of operations that included Phuoc Tuy Province, southeast of Saigon, with its center of operations based in Nui Dat. The area was considered vital to the South Vietnamese government because it was situated between Saigon and the important port of Vung Tau, and one of the Australians’ primary tasks was to keep Route 15 open between Saigon and Vung Tau. To accomplish this they would fight many bitter engagements with both VC and NVA units. That much of the local populace was sympathetic to the VC was well known, and to reduce the chance of ambush, the Australians eventually began using herbicides in Phuoc Tuy Province. By the war’s end approximately fifty thousand Australians had served in Vietnam, with many of the men serving two tours.

One of Ware’s most vivid memories of Vietnam is the mosquitoes—attacking like schools of piranhas, tattooing his skin with welts, which when scratched turned into festering sores. The mosquitoes also carried malaria, so when a C-123s flew over the base camp trailing white fog from its wings, the men almost felt like cheering.

“What I saw them spraying was a mosquito killer, and that’s all we knew it to be at that time. What we didn’t know was that it was malathion. The C-123s came over once a fortnight, or once a week or month, but it was very regular. And we were very happy with it because it killed the bugs. It smelled for a while, but it did the job, and that’s all we cared about at that time, mate.”

Wares also observed backpack spraying and spraying from trucks, but he had been told nothing about herbicides and had no reason to question the purpose of spraying. Until his son was born with missing fingers and only a partial thumb on one hand and he began hearing stories of other Australian veterans whose children were born with deformed feet, cleft palates, missing limbs, holes in their hearts, partial brains, and skin rashes, Wares gave the spraying little thought.

Thirteen years after he returned from Nui Dat, Wares and I are seated in the lounge of a Ramada Inn in New York City. He has arrived from London to see Bob Gibson, an Australian Vietnam veteran who has been touring the United States for eight weeks, talking with American veterans and leaders of the veterans’ movement, and gathering information he hopes will be useful to Australian veterans suffering from the effects of exposure to toxic chemicals.

In 1967 Gibson was an infantryman in Phuo Tuy Province. Returning from three days in the bush he was handed a gas mask and ordered to begin spraying herbicides on the barbed wire surrounding his base camp. Gibson reluctantly complied, wondering why, since he had no training for this kind of work, he had been chosen for such miserable duty. Wearing a gas mask in Vietnam was like burying one’s face in hot wet sand, and Gibson and others assigned to the detail quickly discarded their protective gear. Their clothes stuck to their skin, sweat drained into their eyes, and the spray was often blown directly back into their faces. Within ten days the mucous membranes in Gibson’s nose had deteriorated so much that he suffered from frequent nosebleeds. His skin was covered with a painful rash, and his stomach was constantly upset. But he was nineteen and “very patriotic” at the time, and he believed that if the herbicides reduced the enemy’s cover, then he could easily suffer a bit of discomfort.

Gibson’s commanders “did tell us what we were spraying, and as infantry soldiers we thought it was a good thing. It done the job. We could see what it was doing, and it was making it easier for us. But they didn’t tell us what the outcome would be, the health problems it could cause. We were told that they were going to defoliate, and we thought this was the best thing that they’d ever come up with. And we used to laugh about it; you know, we thought it would be a good idea if they defoliated the whole of South Vietnam. It would be kind of like fightin’ in the desert.

“They did issue us gas masks that first day, but we couldn’t breathe in them because of the humidity. And I was an infantry soldier just come back from three days of ambushes, and we were just picked out at random to use the stuff. We know now that it was nothing more than experimental. We’ve got documents on the scientist who was controlling the spraying. He was sent there by the Australian Department of Defense to experiment with various chemicals, 2,4,5-T, 2,4-D, and others. But the fellows who were picking us out at the time to do this work were infantry sergeants, and they knew as much about chemicals as I did, and that was damn nothing. So we told the sergeant after that first day that we couldn’t breathe using this stuff, and he said, ‘I’ll check on it tonight for you,’ and the next day he said, ‘Don’t worry, leave the gas masks and everything off So we used to get in back there and spray this stuff through the barbed wire, and it would come back on us. And your nose would start to bleed, your lips would all get blisters on them, your mucous membranes would break down, and he, the scientist in charge, has documented it all.”

Like their American counterparts in Vietnam, Australian soldiers had been told very little, if anything, about the health effects of long-term exposure to herbicides. According to an Australian army handout, “Instructions for Spraying Herbicides,” the spray was not “toxic to humans when dispersed as a spray on vegetation,” but “casualties can be caused by spillage of the chemical concentrates on the skin and clothes by the spray. Therefore protective clothing and equipment is worn, and simple safety precautions are to be followed.” Side effects from weedicides and soil sterilants are:

a. Blistering of the skin.

b. Toenails dropping off.

c. Systematic poisoning with fatal results from continued absorption, inhalation, or swallowing of the spray or any of the concentrates.

d. Breakdown of mucous membrane, e.g., nosebleeds, red eyes, mouth ulceration.

But Graham Bell, Queensland president of the Vietnam Veterans Action Association recalls that members of his unit were told that they had absolutely nothing to worry about. “In my unit we were told the chemicals were harmless to humans and animals, that they did no permanent damage to the environment, and that the major disadvantage was that when regrowth occurred (a few weeks after spraying) it would be much more vigorous—just like giving the vegetation a burst of fertilizer. Troops of another unit, 5 R.A.R., were drenched with chemicals sprayed by American aircraft; they were told, ‘It won’t even hurt dumb animals.’ ”1

Had Australian military personnel in charge of defoliation efforts consulted the US Army on herbicides on human health, they would have read that Agent Orange was “relatively nontoxic to man and animals. No injuries have been reported to personnel exposed to aircraft spray. Personnel subject to splashes from handling the agent need not be alarmed, but should shower and change clothes at a convenient opportunity.”

According to the American manual Agent Blue was also “relatively” harmless. “Normal sanitary conditions should be followed when handling Blue. Although it contains a form of arsenic, Blue is relatively nontoxic. It should not be taken internally, however. Any material that gets on the hands, face, or other parts of the body should be washed off at the first opportunity. Clothes that become wet with a solution of Blue should be washed afterwards …”

Neither the American nor the Australian military explain how grunts in the field might be able to shower or change their clothes immediately after exposure to toxic chemicals, or avoid eating food or drinking water contaminated with arsenic* or dioxin.

Shortly after he was assigned to spray herbicides, Gibson, his face covered with a burning rash, entered Nui Dat hospital complaining of severe gastroenteritis (an inflammation of the stomach and intestines) and suffering from high temperatures. The doctors who examined him were bewildered, concluding, just as American doctors examining personnel with similar symptoms in other regions of Vietnam did, that their patient was suffering from overexposure to the heat. Entering the hospital for a second time, Gibson was transferred to Vung Tau, where he was examined by nine doctors, all of whom seemed mystified by his symptoms.

“I was really concerned because I just couldn’t walk. The whole of my body, all over my groin and everywhere, was covered with a rash. But it was weeping and everything was just short of falling off. And I said to these guys, ‘What the bloody hell have I got?’ And they said, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, we think we know what it is. We think we can …’ But I says, ‘Yeah, you think you can what?’ And they said, ‘Oh, just take it easy, mate, we can fix you up.’ But hell, when you’ve got nine doctors looking at you and they don’t know, and when they come back with some younger doctors and start pointin’ and lookin’, it makes you a little bit worried. And still to this day the VA isn’t able to tell me what is was, or is.”

Draining his glass, Wares grimaces and with mincing sarcasm announces, “Why, it was the heat, mate, don’t you know that? The heat of course. We accepted that explanation at the time because that was all they ever told us, all we ever heard. It’s the tropics, boys, that’s what it is. And that, we now know, is just so much bullshit. Because people here in Queensland live in the tropics, and do they all run around with bloody skin diseases? We accepted the explanation at the time that our rashes were due to the heat, but we don’t believe a bloody word of it anymore. And I can tell you this. Never, never did they tell us anything about herbicide spraying, or about putting on any extra clothing or taking precautions against the spray. In fact at the time I wouldn’t have known what the word ‘defoliant’ meant, and that’s a fact, mate. I just wouldn’t have known. Bob Gibson of course knew something more because he actually sprayed, but the average serviceman, the average Australian, wouldn’t have had a clue.”

Gibson nods his head in sad agreement. Since his return from Phuoc Tuy Province he has suffered from skin rashes, insomnia, violent rages, and other problems symptomatic of dioxin exposure. His ability to work impaired by physical and emotional conditions for which he could find no cure, Gibson applied to the Australian Repatriation Commission for disability payments. But the commission, using language that might easily have been excerpted from an American VA form letter, rejected his request. About Gibson the commission’s psychiatrist wrote: “In this particular case, the patient is a thirty-two-year-old man who has a mild anxiety state. He sets himself up as a martyr and has suffered basically at his own hand by not allowing the memories of Vietnam and their associated emotions to fade with time. His present condition is due to his basic inherited personality pattern and his wish for martyrdom.”

During the twelve months he spent in Vietnam, Gibson had gone on numerous ambushes and had fought in a fierce two-day battle with North Vietnamese regulars in which the Australians were outnumbered and nearly destroyed. His unit’s motor positions wiped out, ammunition running low, and the NVA preparing for a final assault, Gibson had given up all hope of surviving the battle when American helicopter gunships arrived. Before the “Puffs”* appeared, says Gibson, he had concluded that “we were all dead men.” In its initial rejection of his request for disability, the commission informed Gibson that he had spent very little time in combat; therefore, wrote the commission’s psychiatrist, “Vietnam could not really have been as traumatic as he now tells.” But later the commission reversed itself, acknowledging that Gibson was indeed a combat veteran while continuing to argue that his experiences in Vietnam were not responsible for his “anxiety condition.”

In retrospect Gibson says that he and the nineteen-year-olds with whom he served may have placed too much trust in people who either did not know or did not care what the effects of toxic chemicals might be on Australian soldiers. “As infantry soldiers we thought we knew what the hell we were doing, but really we were so naïve. We never thought that our government or our own military commanders would allow the use of anything that might have adverse effects on us as troops. And we used to walk through plantations of rotten banana trees that were just burstin’ at the bottom, you know, rottin’, stinkin’, with these tiny dwarf bananas on them. So we’d just walk through and pick them. They were sweet as hell, and we used to eat them all the time. No one ever told us not to. And the water, we used to get it out of streams and drink it. And one time I can really recall quite well. We went through this thick foliage, and it had all this sticky shiny stuff on it, and it stunk, I mean it really stunk. And we were going through this stuff and there was no two ways about it, it had been defoliated. And yet no one ever gave it one second thought that we were there, touching the stuff, getting it on our arms and face. No one thought.”

Gibson’s observations are substantiated by Australian authors John Dux and P. J. Young, who through careful examination of US General Accounting Office reports, including “grid coordinates and details of all missions flown by C-123s from 1965 to 1968,” found that Phuoc Tuy Province had been heavily sprayed with Agent Orange. Matching the GAO reports with Australian Defense Department maps, the authors concluded: “One can prove conclusively that Australian troops operated in defoliated areas, sometimes within a day of missions.”2 Dux and Young also point out that although the US Ranch Hand operations may have been responsible for the destruction of 12 to 21 percent of the total land in South Vietnam (an area approximately the size of Massachusetts), C-123s spraying was only one source of the toxic herbicides to which Australian and American veterans were exposed. Helicopter pilots, for example, needed only the approval of their unit commander before leaving on a defoliation mission, and it is quite possible that some areas of the province—particularly around base camps—were unofficially sprayed on numerous occasions. Spraying from trucks, riverboats, and by backpack also required only the approval of the unit commander.

Another possible source of contamination was from tanks that were used to spray both pesticides and herbicides directly upon or near base camps. Australian pilots have stated that following herbicide missions, empty spray tanks were refilled with pesticides that were then sprayed directly upon the base camp. Commenting on the possibility that residues from herbicides might have been dispersed in this way, one pilot said: “An interesting thing is that after the spraying missions, which occurred about every month with these aircraft, the rubber trees with which the Task Force area was covered shed their leaves rather alarmingly. After spraying for anti-malarial purposes there would be a sudden increase in skin infections for no particular attributable cause, apart from the fact that it followed the spraying.”3

When one considers the amount of semi-authorized, unauthorized, and clandestine spraying in Vietnam, as well as wind drift and the fact that an estimated 14 percent of the Agent Orange sent to Vietnam is unaccounted for, it is apparent that the full extent of the defoliation campaign may never be known. What is clear is that Vietnam veterans whose units are not listed by the Department of Defense or General Accounting Office as having been in spray zones could very well have been exposed to toxic chemicals either in and around their base camps or on ambushes and search-and-destroy missions in the surrounding jungle.

When his son Cameron was born with a “noncorrectable” birth defect, Jim Wares wanted to know why. But doctors were unable to give him a satisfactory explanation, and he decided not to dwell on the boy’s misfortune. After all, Wares told himself, he had survived Vietnam, was married to a fine woman, had a good job, and the boy, except for missing fingers, was beautifully formed, an optimistic and intelligent child whom Wares says is fond of making up stories and playing practical jokes with his hand. One evening, for example, Wares and his wife left their son with a babysitter who, summoned to the bathroom by the boy’s cries, discovered him standing near the toilet bowl. Feigning distress and holding out his hand with the missing fingers, the boy announced that he had accidentally “flushed the fingers away.” The babysitter, says Wares, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Wares had heard stories about Agent Orange and wondered if it might have something to do to with Cameron’s deformity, but the government’s official position was that Orange had not been used in Nui Dat. Besides, argued government officials, scientists had found “no link” between exposure to herbicides and human health problems. But the Australian news media were becoming increasingly interested in the veterans’ problems, and after reading an interview with a veteran whose eyesight was failing and who was suffering from constant trembling, diarrhea, fatigue, and vomiting, Wares decided to begin his own research into the matter. Calling people whose names had appeared in news articles, Wares was amazed to discover that each person he contacted knew other veterans who were sick, whose wives had suffered miscarriages, or whose children were deformed. Wares soon realized that something was seriously, perhaps disastrously, wrong with his fellow Vietnam veterans.

Wares began listing on filing cards the symptoms of veterans with whom he had spoken or corresponded by mail. Sorting through a stack of fifty cards one afternoon, he discovered that nearly one in four of the men he had contacted had fathered a deformed child. Four of the cards actually listed children born with deformed hands, and three out of the four were born with four fingers and half the thumb missing from one hand. On other cards Wares had listed cases of deformed legs, clubfeet, deafness, and missing ears. With each passing day Wares found himself increasingly involved in trying to sort out the truth about his own and his fellow veterans’ exposure to toxic chemicals. With each rebuff from the government his anger—and the veterans’ movement in Australia—grew. The country’s enormous size and the scarcity of money sometimes made logistics rather difficult; but like their counterparts in the States, Australian Vietnam veterans drew support from the realization that they had at least three things in common: they had served in an area of Southeast Asia that had been heavily sprayed with defoliants; many of them were sick, dying, or had fathered children with birth defects; government officials, while expressing concern, were doing little to resolve the issues in a fair and compassionate manner.

“When we first got involved with the movement in Australia,” Wares explains, “I went to the Royal Alexandria Hospital for Children in Sydney, saw the chief pediatrician, and asked some questions. I said, ‘My son has been born with no fingers on one hand.’ And I asked if he had any statistics on that kind of deformity. Now, in Australia most of the hospitals don’t keep that kind of statistics. There’s no national statistics on birth deformities. Some hospitals keep them, some don’t; it’s very ad hoc. So I told this guy that my son was born with no fingers, ‘but his arm isn’t withered, it’s not short, there’s just no fingers. It’s only affected one limb, which in itself I understand is rather unusual.’ And I said, ‘What are the chances of this happening?’ And he said, ‘Well, I would say that using statistics, one in fifty thousand is way over the odds.’

“So I told him, ‘What would you say if I told you that I know another two kids with exactly this same deformity? Exactly the same.’ And he said, ‘My God, that’s incredible.’ And I said, ‘Well, if I told you that both their fathers were Vietnam veterans, and there were only forty-five thousand men from this country who went to Vietnam, and of the three children I know with this deformity all of their fathers are veterans, how would that affect you?’ He was absolutely staggered. To such an extent that he said, ‘What we will do is we’ll test all of the veterans’ children who are deformed free of charge at this hospital.’ And that was in the Sydney press, and in the Australian national press. But one week later that decision was reversed. Politics. The hospital board decided it wouldn’t be done!”

Wares, Holt McMinn, and John Harper eventually formed the Vietnam Veterans Action Association. McMinn had served in Vietnam with an elite commando unit, the Special Air Service Regiment; but after several months in the bush he began coughing blood, his hands were covered with rashes, and, diagnosing his condition as bronchial asthma, Army doctors sent him back to Australia. McMinn attempted to return to Vietnam in 1968, but after examining his health records the Army refused to grant his request. His health continued to deteriorate and he was forced to enter a repatriation hospital where, after three months of tests, doctors told him they could find no reason for his hemorrhaging. His problem, they said, was obviously psychological. Discharged from the military and given a 20 percent disability pension, McMinn was accused by an examining doctor of being a “malingerer” who was trying to “rip off the government.”

Although Wares and Harper had each fathered a deformed child—Harper’s daughter was born with two clubfeet and had already undergone five corrective operations when the two veterans met—they were not suffering from the kind of catastrophic health problems that seemed to be endemic among other Vietnam veterans. “I wasn’t angry for myself,” says Wares, “because even though I had suffered from a rash in Vietnam and had experienced this strange tingling sensation in my limbs since my return home, I was fairly healthy compared to Bob Gibson, Holt McMinn, and too many others I could name. But I wanted to know whether my son could ever have children. I really didn’t think the government owed me a damn thing, but for christsake they do owe it to these kids to try and find out what caused their deformity, and whether or not they can ever have normal children. Because that is the bit that I just can’t handle, I mean the kids and their kids, the generations that are not yet born that might end up with two noses or one ear missing or no arms, no bones, no brains—that is the bit that is just so hard to take.”

Wares knew that establishing a correlation between his exposure to toxic chemicals and Cameron’s birth defects would not be an easy task. By 1969 public opinion in Australia had already turned sour on the war, and a decade later most people simply did not want to be reminded of Vietnam. To those who would rather practice selective amnesia than disentomb a bitterness that had once swept the nation like a virus, Wares, Gibson, McMinn, and other veterans’ advocates were considered “gadflies,” distraught over the fact that they had not been given a hero’s welcome when they returned home and intent on making someone suffer for their neglect. The premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, incensed by the activities of the Vietnam Veterans Action Association, suggested that the veterans’ physical and emotional problems were the result of their having been exposed to a particularly virulent strain of venereal disease. Damaged livers, cancer, and deformed children were apparently just a few of the wages of sin. “And do you know what the man does for a living?” Gibson laughs. “He grows peanuts, and he’s got his own crop-spraying company. That’s right. His own spraying company.”

“They call us communists, radical environmentalists, hippies, you name it,” says Wares, who immigrated to Australia as a boy and is fiercely patriotic, “but that is just so much bullshit. I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised at the animosity toward me and my mates when we returned home, but I didn’t go to Vietnam to save Australia from the screaming communist hordes. I went because my country wanted me to go, and because at the time I just never, never believed that my own country would lie to me.”

Concerned over the growing number of complaints about the domestic use of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, the Australian government commissioned its National Health and Medical Research Council to review the current scientific literature on these herbicides. NHMRC’s research found no link between herbicide use and an increase in the number of birth defects and spontaneous abortions; lauding the council’s work, the Australian government cheerfully concluded that it had found a scientific cornerstone for its refusal to take the Agent Orange issue seriously. Some scientists, however, were not willing to accept the council’s report with such alacrity, arguing, as did Dr. Donald MacPhee, a geneticist at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, that the council “might just as honestly have said that neither is there any scientific basis to disprove a link.”4The council’s conclusions were also criticized by Dr. Barbara Field, a pediatrician with an extensive background in the study of birth defects, and Dr. Charles Kerr of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. In the course of their research, Drs. Field and Kerr discovered a “linear correlation” between the use of 2,4,5-T and the frequency of birth defects.

But perhaps the most serious criticism of NHMRC’s review came from Vietnam veterans, who pointed out that the study had been based on the domestic use of 2,4,5-T in bush control, thus failing to take into account the fact that the T used in Vietnam was five hundred times more potent than that used for domestic purposes. Samples of 2,4,5-T used in Vietnam contained up to fifty parts per million TCCD dioxin, while that used in Australia was limited by law to .1 part per million. Veterans’ advocates also argued that the government’s “cornerstone” was rather shaky because undiluted herbicides were used in Vietnam and the same areas were sprayed again and again—making it quite possible that dioxin, which can remain in the soil for up to thirty years, would accumulate and enter the food chain.

While chairman of the New South Wales branch of Vietnam Veterans Action Association, Wares became increasingly aware of what he calls the “uncanny similarities” between the Australian and American governments’ approaches to the toxic chemical issue. After much lobbying by Vietnam veterans and veterans’ advocates, officials of both nations had agreed that something had to be done to “test the validity” of the veterans’ complaints. The “acid test,” officials decided, would take the form of an epidemiological study, which, though it might take as long as a decade to complete, would answer “some if not all of the many perplexing questions surrounding this complicated issue.” Ordered by the US Congress to commence such a study, the Veterans Administration, after a game of bureaucratic cat-and-mouse, invested $125,000 in a study design that took eighteen months to complete and was rejected by reviewers from the Office of Technology Assessment and scientists at the Center for Disease Control. In Australia, a proposed study of 41,000 Vietnam veterans, 100,000 of their children, and a 20,000-person control group had cost the government $1.2 million and gone absolutely nowhere after twelve months.

“They tried to buy us off with this study just before the last elections,” says Wares, shaking his head in disgust. “They actually tried to give us $2 million dollars—that’s what the entire study was supposed to cost—to shut us up. But for christsake, mate, that wouldn’t even buy the bloody paper clips and everybody knows it. And the study was supposed to have been completed by two years, but the feasibility study hasn’t even been finished, and it’s taken three years.”

At one point Australian veterans received a questionnaire in the mail that was a carbon copy of one mailed to US veterans in 1978. One question asked whether the recipient had been exposed to chemicals in trenches and foxholes. The form, according to Wares, was similarly ludicrous throughout.

Meanwhile, the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs assured Vietnam veterans that it was keeping a close watch on developments at the Veterans Administration in Washington, a watch that included a visit by the Australian minister for veterans’ affairs, Senator Anthony Messner, to the VA in the United States. Once back in Australia, Senator Messner announced that he had been privy to information that might resolve much of the controversy surrounding the Agent Orange issue. He had learned, for example, that Australian veterans might be suffering from the same malady that, according to the VA, was affecting the health and behavior of many American veterans. The trauma of war, Messner claimed, not exposure to toxic herbicides, was responsible for the veterans’ problems.

Australian veterans advocates knew just how traumatic Vietnam had been for many of the young men who spent 365 days living in fear; seeing their friends die sudden, often brutal deaths, and discovering that the people whom they had been sent to “save” might work at the base camp during the day and plant booby traps in the jungle at night. More than a decade after their return from Asia, veterans were still suffering from flashbacks, night terrors, cold sweats, depression, rages, and guilt. But night terrors are not synonymous with soft tissue sarcomas, flashbacks do not produce deformed children, and liver disease could hardly be considered a symptom of “war neurosis.” Messner’s attempts to sweep the toxic chemical issue under the rug with a broom he had acquired in Washington angered Australian veterans and convinced Jim Wares that the Australian and US governments might be deliberately withholding information on the health effects of herbicides used in Vietnam.

“I never knew how naïve I was,” Wares sighs, calling for another round and refusing my offer to pay, “until I got involved in this. I just never really knew. There are things that have happened that until this day I just can hardly believe. I mean, you hear about the CIA and ASIO [the Australian counterpart to the CIA] and you hear how the CIA can destroy people, but in Australia it’s a different world, and I never really considered any of it real; it was all TV stuff to me. But I believe now it’s all real. Every bit of it is real. Do you know, for example, what happened to the scientist that Bob mentioned earlier, the one who was assigned by the government to test herbicides in Vietnam. His name was George Lugg, and he was an honorary major during the war. Part of his job was to advise the US Army on the use of herbicides and pesticides in Vietnam, and he was a brilliant scientist, absolutely brilliant. We got ahold of some of his papers and reports and, of course, a copy had always gone right to the chemical warfare people at Fort Detrick. Brilliant fellow, and when he came back from Vietnam they said he had a ‘personality disorder,’ that’s what they called it anyway. And do you know what they did to him, and we’ve only just discovered this. He ended up in a convalescent home, an old man’s home, and he’s fifty-seven. Fifty-seven years old! None of us knew anything about Lugg until the association got going; then we discovered that George Lugg existed and who he was and what he did, and that he was in an old man’s home in Victoria. So we tried to set up a meeting with him and a journalist, but a ‘salmonella’ outbreak occurred that weekend at the home and no one could see George Lugg.”*

Wares lights a cigarette and watches the smoke curl lazily around his fingers. “I’m not really a melodramatic person. I don’t see ghosts everywhere, and I’m not paranoid at all, but there’s pieces to this puzzle that are missing and I wonder if we’ll ever find them and put the whole thing together before we all die. Sometimes I really doubt it.”

Bob Gibson and his wife have been advised by a physician that because of Gibson’s exposure to toxic chemicals they should “under no circumstances” consider having children. Thirteen years after his army discharge, Gibson still suffers from skin rashes, insomnia, and stomach problems. But in spite of his many maladies, Gibson feels that he is more fortunate than many veterans. One of the most mysterious aspects of toxic chemical poisoning is that different species of animals are affected to a greater or lesser degree by substances like dioxin; it might very well be the case that human beings exposed to the same quantity of dioxin will react in dissimilar ways. For some the exposure may manifest itself in skin rashes, chronic allergies, migraine headaches, and personality changes, while others die in a matter of months or years from cancer, liver disease, kidney failure, and what has been called “wasting disease.”† Still others—like Jim Wares, whose tentmate in Vietnam suffers from chronic allergies and has won the first round with a bout of lymphoma—appears to have escaped the more devastating effects of exposure to toxic chemicals. In short, dioxin has crept through the ranks of Australian and American Vietnam veterans, maiming some, destroying others, and leaving the survivors bewildered, angry, afraid. Bob Gibson and Jim Wares are survivors, but they know too many veterans who, while still in their prime of life, have succumbed to the cumulative effects of toxic poisoning.

They knew Collin Simpson, a thirty-five-year-old Vietnam veteran who had been fighting to stay alive for a number of years. Dying of lymphoma, Simpson was absolutely certain that his illness could be traced to his exposure to toxic chemicals, including Agent Orange, during his ten-month tour of duty in Vietnam. He died just a few days before he was to become the subject of the first major Agent Orange case in Australia.

After he returned from Vietnam, Simpson lived in a suburb of Sydney where the trees had been bulldozed and, just as sketched on an architect’s drawing board, houses had been built in symmetrical patterns. The neighborhood was friendly enough. On weekends neighbors would get together for a barbecue, a game of cards, and a bit of gossip while the children swam, raced their bikes, or bickered over a game of sandlot soccer. But inside some of the homes were men who “bashed” their wives during fits of uncontrollable rages, men whose bodies were covered in patches of chloracne, men who were suffering from rheumatic pains, fevers, and constant headaches. One veteran had suffered two suspected heart attacks and partial paralysis, at the age of twenty-three.

The children in the neighborhood also had problems. In one of the homes lived a five-year-old boy who could recite only one nursery rhyme; in another, a girl who was hyperactive and had to take medication to correct a chemical imbalance in her brain; in still another, a baby had died of cancer at the age of twelve months; and in the Simpsons’ home, the father was dying and his son had asthma, a partially collapsed lung, and a permanent rash on his chest and back.

The men on Monrobe Street knew that things were not right, and they scoffed at the minister of veterans’ affairs, when he claimed that they were suffering from “war neurosis.” Had they been asked to fight again, most of them would have readily returned to the jungles of South Vietnam, even though they could recall walking through defoliated areas, and years later, wondered whether the water they drank or the food they had eaten in Vietnam might be responsible for their present maladies.

Collin Simpson died before his claims that he had been poisoned by toxic herbicides could be proven or disproven. But Simpson’s wife and veterans’ activists requested and received further hearings before the Repatriation Tribunal, a judicial review board with powers to grant dispensation, arguing that Simpson died of “war-related causes” and that his wife and children were entitled to a full was pension. One year after her husband’s death, the tribunal ruled that the claim was valid and granted Mrs. Simpson her pension. In a ruling that Vietnam veterans have called a “worldwide breakthrough,” the tribunal conceded that Simpson’s death might well have been caused by his exposure to toxic chemicals. While unwilling to concede that Simpson’s cancer was definitely caused by his exposure to toxic chemicals, the tribunal emphasized that it had been unable to “disprove the causal relationship.” “This onus,” declared the tribunal, “is not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that there was insufficient grounds for granting the claim.… It is a real possibility that the applicant’s malignant lymphoma resulted from his exposure to phenoxyacetic acid herbicides during his period of special service to South Vietnam.”

“I celebrated that night, the night when this decision came out,” says Wares. “I tell you, I had a party that night. What a breakthrough. What they said was that it was possible and highly likely, that his exposure to chemicals caused his cancer. What they didn’t say was that his exposure definitely caused the cancer. But what is important is that they mentioned ‘toxic chemicals.’ Because in Australia we have written off the Agent Orange issue because we don’t want to give the government the chance to eliminate any of the substances to which we were exposed and therefore close the issue. So we’re including in our arguments Agent Blue, White, Pink, and Green. What we would like to know is what happens when you get all of these chemicals together. When you use them indiscriminately like they did in Vietnam, then what the hell can that do to a human being? We know that all of them except Blue contained some form of dioxin, and that Collin Simpson is dead and a lot of others are dying, not to mention the veterans who are screwed up, really in bad shape, and the kids who are still being born with serious problems.”

Although the tribunal’s decision has been hailed as a major precedent by American and Australian Vietnam veterans, Wares and Gibson realize that it is only one step down the long road toward winning compensation for those who are so seriously ill that they cannot work, and for the survivors of those who have died. Responding to the tribunal’s decision, Senator Messner remarked that it should be regarded only as a single case. He had “always encouraged veterans to take their claims before the Repatriation Commission and would continue to do so.” But veterans’ advocates, having spent $250,000 on legal fees for the Simpson case, argue that this approach could take years and require millions of dollars, and that what is needed is a judicial inquiry into the government’s handling of the toxic chemical issue, and inquiry that Senator Messner has steadfastly opposed.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, mate,” Wares announces. “You could fill up this bloody room with gold bars and it wouldn’t compensate for Cameron’s birth defect. Nothing will ever compensate for what’s happened to the guys who went to Vietnam, and to their families. Nothing. We don’t want money. That’s just a bunch of bullshit. No one really cares about the fucking money. What we want people to know is just what has gone on, the bullshit we’ve put up with, the cover-ups, the …”—Ware’s voice fades and slides, then regains composure, clarity—“Someday people will look at this thing, the whole thing, and they’ll be amazed, they’ll just be amazed and, I would think, damn frightened when they realize what’s happened to us could very well happen to them. I hope to Christ it never does, mate. I just really hope it never, never happens to anyone else.”

* By the war’s end, Operation Ranch Hand had sprayed 1,933,699 pounds of arsenic on the Vietnamese countryside.

* Puff the Magic Dragon: C-47 cargo plane equipped with three electric-powered Gatling machine guns.

* According to Australian authors John Dux and P. J. Young, George Lugg suffered “what was described as a ‘breakdown’ ” in 1973. But a friend of Lugg’s, Mr. Geoffrey Foot, says that following the breakdown Lugg “became very irrational in his behavior and the government fobbed that off as psychiatric disorder, but it was certainly more than just a mental breakdown; it was a distinct physical breakdown in his appearance and everything.” Although Lugg was obviously exposed to herbicides over a period of time, no one is absolutely certain whether his physical and emotional collapse was caused by his exposure. “In his day he was a very brilliant man,” says his sister, Mrs. D. A. Hardy, “but at fifty he lost it all.”

† Some scientists believe that dioxin attacks the enzyme system, lowering the body’s ability to fight infection and making the exposed individual more susceptible to disease. Experimental rhesus monkeys given minute quantities of dioxin develop rashes, lose weight, become listless and literally waste away in a matter of days or weeks, depending on the amount of dioxin they ingest.

I wish to dedicate this book to Paul Sutton, Ken Herrmann, to Jerry, Lori, Sandy, and Heather Strait, and to all of those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from the effects of Agent Orange/chemical warfare.


Seven Stories Press is an independent book publisher based in New York City. We publish works of the imagination by such writers as Nelson Algren, Russell Banks, Octavia E. Butler, Ani DiFranco, Assia Djebar, Ariel Dorfman, Coco Fusco, Barry Gifford, Hwang Sok-yong, Lee Stringer, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name a few, together with political titles by voices of conscience, including the Boston Women’s Health Collective, Noam Chomsky, Angela Y. Davis, Human Rights Watch, Derrick Jensen, Ralph Nader, Loretta Napoleoni, Gary Null, Project Censored, Barbara Seaman, Alice Walker, Gary Webb, and Howard Zinn, among many others. Seven Stories Press believes publishers have a special responsibility to defend free speech and human rights, and to celebrate the gifts of the human imagination, wherever we can. For additional information, visit


Brown, Michael. Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Fawcett, 1962.

Dux, John, and P.J. Young. Agent Orange: The Bitter Harvest. Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.

Ensign, Tod, and Michael Uhl. GI Guinea Pigs: How the Pentagon Exposed Our Troops to Dangers More Deadly Than War. New York: Playboy Press, 1980.

Fuller, John G. The Poison That Fell from the Sky. New York: Random House, 1977.

Hersh, Seymour M. Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Hidden Arsenal. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.

Linedecker, Clifford. Kerry: Agent Orange and an American Family. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.

Pfeiffer, E. W., Arthur H. Westing et al. Harvest of Death: Chemical Warfare in Vietnam and Cambodia. New York: Free Press, 1971.

Whiteside, Thomas. The Pendulum and the Toxic Cloud: The Course of Dioxin Contamination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

___. The Withering Rain: America’s Herbicidal Folly. New York: Dutton, 1971.



1. Admiral E.R. Zumwalt, Jr., “Report to Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs on the Association Between Adverse Health Effects and Exposure to Agent Orange.” May 5, 1990, p.p. 16–17.

2. Ibid., p. 18.

3. Ibid., p. 15.

4. Ibid., p. 19

5. Institute of Medicine. Cancer and the Environment: Gene-Environment Interactions, August 2002.


No notes.


No notes.


No notes.


1. Agent Orange: Information for Veterans Who Served in Vietnam (Questions and Answers), Office of Public and Consumer Affairs, Veterans Administration, June 1982.

2. Clifford Linedecker, Kerry: Agent Orange and an American Family (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), p. 176.

3. Ton That Tung, MD, Ton Duc Lang, MD, and Do Duc Van, MD (Viet Duc Hospital, Hanoi, Vietnam), “The Problem of Mutagenic Effects on the First Generation after Exposure to Defoliants”; Ton That Tung, Ton Duc Lang, and Do Duc Van, “The Mutagenacity of Dioxin and Its Effects on Reproduction among Exposed War Veterans,” unpublished papers.

4. Ibid.

5. Arthur W. Galston, “Herbicides in Vietnam,” New Republic, November 25, 1967.

6. Martin Woollacott, “Agent Orange Still Takes Toll,” The Guardian, reprinted in US and World Section of the Boston Globe, June 4, 1980.

7. Testimony of Maureen Ryan before the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, US Senate, February 21, 1980.

8. Thomas Whiteside, The Withering Rain: America’s Herbicidal Folly (New York: Dutton, 1971), p. 46.

9. “Vets Told Agent Orange Decision Is Years Away” (AP), Ithaca Journal, September I, 1982.


1. Graham Bell, “Agent Orange: ‘It Won’t Even Hurt Dumb Animals,’ ” Grifitti, student newspaper of Griffith University (Australia).

2. John Dux and P. J. Young, Agent Orange: The Bitter Harvest (Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980), p. 67.

3. Ibid., p. 63.

4. Ibid., p. 131.


1. Statement of the National Veterans Law Center before the Subcommittee on Medical Facilities and Benefits of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, US House of Representatives, July 22, 1980.

2. Ibid., p. 6.

3. Ibid.

4. Report by the comptroller general of the United States, “Health Effects of Exposure to Herbicide Orange in South Vietnam Should Be Resolved,” April 6, 1979, p. 12.

5. Ibid., p. 6.

6. Statement of the National Veterans Law Center, p. 14.

7. Ibid., p. 16.

8. Ibid., p. 16–18.

9. Testimony of Philip Handler, president, National Academy of Sciences National Research Council, Washington, D.C., before the Subcommittee on Medical Facilities and Benefits of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, US House of Representatives, September 16, 1980.

10. Ibid.

11. Seymour M. Hersh, Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Hidden Arsenal (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968), pp. 153–54.

12. Statement of William J. Jacoby Jr., MD, deputy chief medical director, Department of Medicine and Surgery, Veterans Administration, before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, US House of Representatives, May 6, 1981, pp. A-3-A-4.

13. Public Hearings, New York State Temporary Commission on Dioxin Exposure, Farmingdale, New York, June 20, 1981.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Statement of Max Cleland, administrator of veterans’ affairs, before the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, US Senate, February 21, 1980.

17. Statement of the National Veterans Law Center, p, 22.

18. Ibid., p. 24.

19. New York Times, August 18, 1981.

20. The American Legion, January 1982, p. 7.

21. Ibid.

22. Washington Post, November 19, 1981.

23. “Vets Told Agent Orange Decision Is Years Away,” Ithaca Journal, September 1, 1982.

24. Ibid.

25. “VA Turns over Agent Orange Study to HHS Unit,” Washington Post, October 15, 1982.


1. Karen J. Payne, “Beyond Vietnam, Beyond Politics, Beyond Causes …,” Barrister, Spring 1979.

2. Victor J. Yannacone, W. Keith Kavenagh, and Margie T. Searcy, “Agent Orange Litigation: Cooperation for Victory,” Trial, February 1982.

3. Ibid.

4. Victor J. Yannacone, W. Keith Kavenagh, and Margie T. Searcy, “Dioxin, Molecule of Death,” Trial, December 1981.

5. Victor J. Yannacone et al., “Agent Orange Litigation: Cooperation for Victory,” Trial, February 1982.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.


1. Direct testimony of Dr. Michael L. Gross before the administrator, United States Environmental Protection Agency.

2. Ibid.


1. Matthew Meselson, interview with filmmaker Daniel Keller, February 26, 1981.

2. Federal Register, “Emergency Suspension Order for 2,4,5-T and Silvex” 15874–15920, March 15, 1979.

3. Drs. Ton That Tung, Ton Duc Lang, and Do Duc Van (Viet Duc Hospital, Hanoi, Vietnam), “The Mutagenacity of Dioxin and Its Effects on Reproduction among Exposed War Veterans,” unpublished paper.

4. David Kriebel, “The Dioxins’ Genetic Risks,” Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, August 1979.

5. Statement of Dr. Steven D. Stellman, assistant vice president for epidemiology, American Cancer Society, before the Subcommittee on Veteran’s Affairs, US House of Representatives, July 22, 1980.

6. Testimony of Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, School of Public Health, University of Illinois Medical Center, before the Subcommittee on Medical Facilities and Benefits of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, US House of Representatives, July 22, 1980.

7. L. Hardell and A. Sandstrom, British Journal of Cancer, Vol. 39 (1971), p. 711.

8. O. Axelson et al., Läkartidningen, Vol. 76 (1979), p. 3505.

9. M. Eriksson et al., Läkartidningen, Vol. 76 (1979), p. 3872.

10. A. M. Thiess and Frentzel-Beyme, “Mortality of Persons Exposed to Dioxin after an Accident Which Occurred in the BASF on the 13th of November, 1953,” Medichemen Congress, University of San Francisco, September 5–9, 1977.

11. M. Eriksson et al., “Soft Tissue Sarcomas and Exposure to Chemical Substances: A Case-Referent Study,” British Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 38 (1981), pp. 27–33.

12. Thomas Whiteside, The Pendulum and the Toxic Cloud: The Course of Dioxin Contamination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 1979, pp. 38–39.

13. Ibid., pp. 116–17.

14. Ibid., p. 120.

15. Ibid., pp. 120–21.

16. Ibid., p. 124.

17. Ibid., pp. 74–75.

18. Statement of Robert O. Muller, executive director, Vietnam Veterans of America, before the Subcommittee on Medical Facilities and Benefits of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, US House of Representatives, July 22, 1980.

19. Sierra Club presentation, WIXT, June 27, 1980.

20. Statement of Dr. Jeanne M. Stellman, associate professor of public health, Division of Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, before the Subcommittee on Medical Facilities and Benefits of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, US House of Representatives, July 22, 1980.


1. “The Globe Incident: 1969–81,” New Times, June 3–9, 1981.

2. “Herbicide Concerns: A Basic Introduction,” Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), P.O. Box 375, Eugene, Oregon 97440.

3. Jack Anderson, Washington Post, April 24, 1978.

4. Phil Keisling, “The Praying of Oregon,” Willamette Week, December 31, 1979.

5. NCAP Staff, “The Saga of 2,4,5-T,” NCAP News, Fall-Winter 1981–82.

6. Philadelphia Inquirer, October 31, 1982.

7. “Herbicide Information Packet,” Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), p. 65.

8. Ibid., pp. 66–67.

9. Ibid., pp. 67–68.

10. Paul Merrell, “IBT Officials Indicted for Fraud,” NCAP News, Spring–Summer 1981.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.


No notes.


On June 8, 1969, President Nixon appears on television to make an important announcement. During his presidential campaign, Nixon pledged to “end the war and win the peace.” Perhaps he’s going to reveal just how he plans to do that. Instead, he tells a bitterly divided nation that he will bring 25,000 soldiers home from Vietnam, reducing troop strength to 484,000 by December 15th.

Twelve thousand miles away, American soldiers cluster around a transistor radio, waiting to hear which units will be withdrawn from the war zone. The men, many of them just out of their teens, seem to be holding their breath. Will they continue fighting in the rice paddies and jungles of Southeast Asia, or will they turn in their weapons, pack their rucksacks, and board a freedom bird back to “the world.”

“Among the troops to be pulled out,” announces Armed Forces radio, “is the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne.” Cheering, hugging, dancing, they hoist a small Vietnamese boy, parading him about as though he’d set them free from the killing fields. They have survived firefights and ambushes, death and destruction. Some have been wounded; all bear the scars of war.

These soldiers have no way of knowing they have been exposed to carcinogenic, fetus deforming, and possibly mutagenic chemicals during their twelve-month tour of duty. In the field, they were told that their skin rashes were “jungle rot,” their headaches, dizziness, and stomach upsets were symptoms of “combat stress.” They watched C-123 aircraft fly low over mangrove forests and triple canopy jungles, spewing chemicals that turned the trees into lifeless wastelands in a matter of days. Inside these defoliated zones they found dead birds and monkeys, fish floating upon the surface of streams, a deep, frightening, silence.

Killing the trees, said the military, would drive the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers into the open, where superior American firepower could destroy them. The defoliation campaign was bound to shorten the war, and it would save American lives. In time, the jungles would grow back, the tigers, elephants and bears would return, and toxic chemicals in the soil would degrade in sunlight or be washed out to sea during monsoon rains.

Had anyone predicted that millions of human beings exposed to Agent Orange/dioxin would get sick and die, their warnings would have been dismissed as sci-fi fantasy or apocalyptic nonsense. Unfortunately, forty years after the last spray mission in Vietnam, American, South Korean, Australian, New Zealand and Vietnamese soldiers, as well as the Vietnamese people, are suffering and dying from the effects of chemical warfare.

When I first set out in early 1980 to write a book about a chemical called Agent Orange, few people really wanted to talk about the Vietnam war. It was as though the curtain had fallen on a production that drew huge crowds for many years. People argued and fought over the meaning of this production. They hurled accusations and threats, walked out on their families, divorced their spouses, and went into exile. Then, one day in April 1975 it was over. Fifty-eight thousand Americans and several million Vietnamese were dead. This toll did not include those who had died or would die from the effects of chemical warfare.

One blustery winter night, I joined John Green, an army medic in Vietnam, and his wife Deborah for dinner. Over wine and cheese, they told me about their work with “Agent Orange Victims International,” an organization founded by Paul Rheutershan, a helicopter crew chief who flew almost daily through clouds of herbicides being discharged from C-123 cargo planes. Paul observed the dark swaths cut into the jungle by the spraying, watched the mangrove forests turn brown, sicken and die, but didn’t really worry about his own health. According to the US Army, Agent Orange was “relatively nontoxic to humans and animals.”

In the spring of 1978, Rheutershan, a twenty-eight year old self-proclaimed “health nut,” appeared on the Today Show, where he shocked many of the program’s viewers by announcing: “I died in Vietnam, but I didn’t even know it.” On December 14, 1978, Paul succumbed to the cancer that had destroyed much of his colon, liver, and abdomen.

In the months before he died, Paul founded Agent Orange Victims International, and spent all of his waning energies trying to inform the American people about his belief that his cancer was the result of his exposure to Agent Orange. The Veterans Administration denied any connection between exposure to Agent Orange and human illness; however, three weeks before he died, Rheuthershan did receive a disability check from the VA. His sister told reporters that Paul was too weak to sign the check. Two days after his death, Paul’s mother received a letter from the VA requesting that the check be returned.

John and Deborah encouraged me to forge ahead with my research. They offered valuable suggestions for navigating the labyrinth of contradictions, denials, and newspeak that the government and the chemical companies were using to avoid helping veterans and their families.

For example, according to the Department of Defense, combat troops did not enter defoliated zones until six weeks after Air Force pilots destroyed the trees. By that time, residue from the herbicide spray would have broken down, limiting combat soldiers’ exposure to toxic chemicals.

“Six weeks?” scoffed combat veterans, “Are you kidding me? More like six hours. Six minutes. What were we going to do, sit back and wait for the enemy to book? Drank water and ate food sprayed with Agent Orange. Slept on ground soaked with that shit. Got sprayed directly. Soaking wet. The government is lying. They can lie all they want but we know better. They weren’t there. We were. They’re not fooling anyone but themselves.”

Ex-soldiers who visited Veterans Administration hospitals complaining of skin rashes, liver and kidney problems, heart disease, numbness of the hands and feet, memory loss, and other illnesses were accused of being alcoholics, drug addicts, malingerers and scam artists. The VA thought these young veterans were just angry about the war; they merely wanted attention, and they were out to extort money from the government. TCDD-dioxin, the contaminant in Agent Orange, might harm laboratory animals, but there was no evidence that exposure to this chemical caused cancer and other illnesses in human beings.

The government did concede that some veterans, though not many, might have been briefly exposed to Agent Orange; however, this did not mean that anyone was ill, or ever would get sick from this exposure.

Vietnam veterans and their families invited me into their homes. They provided me with military documents, scientific studies, letters, photographs, articles and books. I listened to their pain, and their anger at the government they served and no longer trusted. Young couples were frightened. Should they risk having children, knowing that their offspring might be seriously deformed? Where could they turn for tests that might help them decide what to do?

Veterans ridiculed the VA’s “Agent Orange physical,” calling it an insult to their intelligence. They talked about undergoing painful biopsies, only to learn after waiting for weeks that the fatty tissue taken from their bodies had gone missing. Working-class men and women, lacking formal education, became experts on the effects of toxic chemicals on animals and human beings. Their kitchen and dining room tables were stacked with materials that, normally, only those with PhDs in science or medical degrees, might read. They wanted their brothers in arms, and the women who tended them in Mash units, to know the truth about Agent Orange/dioxin.

In the beginning, I found it hard to understand why the government would treat Vietnam veterans with such disrespect and downright contempt. Was the Veterans Administration afraid that the government would go bankrupt treating victims of Agent Orange? Were officials waiting until there were more studies to support a direct link between Agent Orange exposure and human illnesses? It seemed to me that what veterans and their families were asking for—help with medical bills, scientific studies, competent and compassionate doctors at VA hospitals—was perfectly reasonable. Veterans talked about a cover up. People at the highest levels were lying. The government and the chemical companies were trying to wear Agent Orange victims down.

In every home, café, bar, hearing room, where I met veterans, I asked them the same question: “Why do you think the government is treating you this way?” The answer never varied.

“Because,” they replied, “the government is just waiting for us all to die.”

In the early morning hours of May 7, 1984, lawyers representing Vietnam veterans and their families agreed to a $180 million dollar out-of-court settlement with the chemical manufacturers of Agent Orange. Dow chemical, Monsanto, et al. won a monumental battle with US veterans and high-powered attorneys from prestigious law firms. They demonstrated that the earth’s water, food, and air supplies belong not to the billions of people who inhabit this planet, but to multi-national corporations that inundate the world’s environment with cancer causing chemicals.

In June, 1985, Jack Weinstein, the presiding judge in the Agent Orange case, commenced a series of “Fairness Hearings” to ascertain, he said, how Vietnam veterans felt about the out-of-court settlement. The courtroom was packed with lawyers, Vietnam veterans and their wives, and media from around the world. Victor Yannacone, the attorney who initiated the Agent Orange class action lawsuit against Dow, et al. on January 8, 1979, “on behalf of all those so unfortunate as to have been and now to be situated at risk, not only during this generation but during generations to come,” attended the hearings. Flamboyant, brilliant and hot-tempered, Yannacone had dedicated years of his life to helping veterans. They liked Victor and most important they trusted him; this might explain why His Honor cut him off mid-sentence when he tried to testify. I also attempted to testify, but didn’t get far before the judge interrupted, informing me that if I wanted to make a real difference I should go home and run for Congress.

The Fairness Hearings were a sleight of hand designed to convince veterans that they had a voice in the out-of-court settlement. Outside the courtroom, veterans wearing orange “Sprayed and Betrayed” tee shirts denounced the agreement their lawyers made with the chemical companies, calling it a sellout, a swindle and an insult.

A totally disabled Vietnam veteran would receive $12,000, but this would be spread out over a period of ten years and would not be free and clear. Disabled veterans receiving these meager Agent Orange payments might become ineligible for food stamps, public assistance and government pensions. Widows of Vietnam veterans who could prove their husbands died from Agent Orange exposure would receive $3,700, while the wives and children of Vietnam veterans were not included in the distribution plan.

Financiers who helped provide money for the plaintiffs’ lawyers to work on the case would get back, as a group, $750,000. An attorney who’d been a “passive investor” received $1,700 an hour for his services. One law firm collected $1,347,501, another $1,889,012. The court awarded $13,223,702 in attorney fees.

In this case, “the rule of law” clearly meant “the power of money.”

On May 5, 1990, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt delivered a copy of his explosive classified report, “On the Association Between Adverse Health Effects and Exposure to Agent Orange,” to the Department of Veterans Affairs (formerly the Veterans Administration). In charge of all naval operations in the southern half of Vietnam, Admiral Zumwalt issued orders to use Agent Orange along the banks of the Mekong Delta’s canals and rivers. His son, Elmo Zumwalt III, served on a swift boat during the war, plying the waters in search of Viet Cong, swimming in canals contaminated with Agent Orange, eating food and drinking water poisoned by dioxin. Lieutenant Zumwalt returned home from the war, married, and started a family. His son was born with severe learning disabilities, and at the age of thirty-six Elmo was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphatic system. After a long courageous battle, he died at the age of forty-two.

Admiral Zumwalt spent two years researching and writing a report that excoriates the Veterans Administration, criticizes the Center for Disease Control and dismisses the Air Force “Ranch Hand Study.” He charges that the government and the chemical companies with conspiring to deny Vietnam veterans much needed help for their war-related illnesses. Scientific studies on the health effects of Agent Orange, he writes, were flawed and even falsified. Researchers used bogus statistics to deny any association between exposure to Agent Orange and human illness. Contrary to early reports, the rate of birth defects among children fathered by the men who flew “Ranch Hand” missions in Vietnam was double that of the control group. Moreover, Ranch Hand pilots showed a significant increase in skin cancers “unrelated to overexposure to the sun as originally suggested in the 1984 report.”1

Zumwalt chastises the Veterans’ Advisory Committee on Environmental Hazards for its “blanket lack of impartiality. In fact, some members of the Advisory Committee and other VA officials have, even before reviewing the evidence, [author’s italics] publically denied the existence of a correlation between exposure to dioxin and adverse health effects.”2

He charges that Monsanto Corporation studies conducted on its employees to ascertain the effects of their exposure to dioxin were not only fraudulent, but had been “repeatedly cited by government officials to deny the existence of a relationship between health problems and exposure to agent Orange.…”3

“Any Vietnam Veteran, or Vietnam Veteran’s child who has a birth defect,” writes Admiral Zumwalt, “should be presumed to have a service-connected health effect if that person suffers from the type of health effects consistent with dioxin exposure.…”4

Vietnam veterans had been right all along. The government and the chemical companies had conspired for many years to deny them help. Government officials had in fact lied, scientists had cooked the research books, the Ranch Hand Study was a fraud, and officials sworn to support veterans had, instead, worked diligently to undermine them.

No one really knows, or ever will know, the exact number of US servicemen who have died from the effects of Agent Orange. We do not know how many veterans’ children were born with serious birth defects, how many young wives suffered numerous spontaneous abortions, or how many victims of Agent Orange, suffering from chronic pain and depression, might have taken their own lives.

Published in 1983, Waiting for an Army to Die ended with this warning:

“Vietnam veterans are our future, and that future is now.”

Since then, the cancer epidemic in this country and other parts of the world has killed millions of men, women, and children. According to the Institute of Medicine (202), cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. “This year alone,” says the IOM, “approximately 560,000 Americans will die of cancer-related causes and almost 1.4 million new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed. (IOM report, August 2002). The report goes on to say that there are approximately eighty thousand industrial chemicals now registered for use in the United States, “but very few have been tested for their health effects, singly, synergistically, or with different kinds of genetic patterns.”5

The United States of America is a chemical warzone, a place of never ending fear that our family members, friends and neighbors will develop cancer. We watch loved ones undergo radiation treatment, chemotherapy and major operations. We wait, hope, and pray for miracles. The news media encourage us not to despair. Scientists will find a cure for cancer. Our children will live long lives. We will be there to see them marry. We will get to watch our grandchildren grow up. Meanwhile, corporations that place profit over people continue to poison our world with impunity.

For US soldiers and those who served from other countries in Vietnam, the Vietnamese people and their majestic rain forests, and children born so disabled they will never walk or talk or marry or have children of their own, Agent Orange is a monumental tragedy. Vietnam veterans were a throwaway army; the Vietnamese were a throwaway people. Children in this country and throughout the world are throwaway children. We are all Vietnam veterans; we are all Vietnamese, all guinea pigs in one the most diabolical experiments in human history.

Through the determined, unrelenting efforts of Vietnam veterans and their supporters, the Veterans Administration has finally agreed to pay “presumptive” compensation for a number of illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure. A partial list of these illnesses includes: Bell Cell Leukemias, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, Diabetes, Hodgkins Disease, Prostrate cancer, Soft Tissue Sarcoma, and other diseases.

In January 2009, president Obama nominated General Erik Shinseki to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. A Vietnam veteran with thirty-eight years in the army, Gen. Shinseki promised to transform the Department by streamlining access to health care for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), and for veterans who are seriously ill due to their exposure to Agent Orange. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, one hundred thousand Vietnam veterans will apply for disability compensation over the next two years. Veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars also need help coping with wounds, PTSD, and illnesses related to exposure to depleted uranium (DU), and other toxins.

Money cannot ameliorate the pain of veterans who are dying of cancer and other Agent Orange related diseases. It won’t bring back soldiers who expired knowing their government had stonewalled, deceived, and abandoned them. Money pays for bills, hospital stays, hospice care and funeral expenses. It will never compensate an army poisoned on the field of battle and left to die when it returned home.

More than three million Vietnamese are suffering from exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin, including at least five hundred thousand to one million children. I have spent time with these children in Hanoi’s Friendship Village, family homes outside of Danang, and in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tu Du Hospital. Some are missing arms and legs and eyes; some have enormous heads or strange burned bark skin. My son took photographs of these children, and I wrote Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam. Agent Orange families welcomed us into their homes, they answered our questions, and asked us to share what we’d seen and heard in Vietnam with the world.

I wanted to write this new introduction to Waiting for an Army to Die, while keeping the original content of the book, as a kind of segue into the legacies of chemical warfare on the Vietnamese people.

It is my hope that the tragedy of Agent Orange will convince, perhaps shock, the American people and others throughout the world into demanding that corporations and governments stop turning Mother Earth into a toxic sewer. All human beings have the right to live long, productive, healthy lives without having to worry about the threat of cancer. The United Nations and other international bodies should create a World Environmental Bill of Rights, making it a crime against humanity to poison the word’s rivers, lakes, oceans and land. If we fail to do that, we are condemning future generations to suffer unnecessary pain and premature death.

Cleaning up the environment is not the cure for cancer, but it will slow down and in time dramatically reduce the rate of illness and death from this disease.

Paul Rhetershan wanted the world to know that toxic chemicals like dioxin kill human beings. Were he alive today, I’m sure he would be pleased to see how many people are working, in so many ways, to spread this message, even if government officials refuse to act and corporations still refuse to listen.

Copyright © 1989, 2011 by Fred A. Wilcox

First Seven Stories Press edition, August 2011

Second Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including mechanical, electric, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wilcox, Fred A.
  Waiting for an army to die : the tragedy of Agent Orange / Fred A. Wilcox. — 1st Seven Stories ed.
     p. cm.
eISBN: 978-1-60980-339-1
1. Veterans–Diseases–United States. 2. Agent Orange–War use. 3. Agent Orange–Toxicology. 4. Vietnam War, 1961-1975–Chemical warfare. I. Title. II. Title: Tragedy of Agent Orange.
UB369.W54 2011



The Vietnamization of America

During the height of the war in Vietnam, television crews, newspaper reporters, and freelance writers followed American and Vietnamese troops into jungles, through swamps, and up mountains. Between toothpaste and shampoo commercials, Americans could watch helicopters strafe “enemy strongholds,” see young Marines returning from an ambush or firefight, and watch the wounded being evacuated or the enemy dead counted following a battle. News coverage of the Vietnam War was so extensive, in fact, that some cynics began referring to the war as a “media event.”

But what Americans did not see during the late sixties or throughout the seventies was the war being waged on their own environment, sometimes right in their own backyards. There were no crews from CBS to witness the Forest Service’s spraying of Bob McKusick’s homestead near Globe, Arizona, in 1968: nor were reporters on hand to observe Boston Edison’s spraying of herbicides near a heavily populated suburb south of Boston in August 1979. When the Long Island Rail Road, without notifying the residents along its rights-of-way, doused homeowners’ gardens and children with toxic herbicides, it didn’t even make the local news. Like the troops in Vietnam, those who lived near national forests, power-line and railroad rights-of-way, or privately owned tree farms had been told—if they were told anything—not to worry; herbicides were harmless.

From 1965 until 1970, when the spraying of Agent Orange was suspended in Vietnam, the US military covered approximately five million acres of Vietnam with herbicides. During those same years, ranchers, farmers, and the Forest Service sprayed 4.1 million acres of the American countryside annually with 2,4,5-T. The Forest Service alone sprayed more than 430,000 acres of national forest every year with 2,4,5-T in an attempt to kill broadleaved plants that might block sunlight from pine and other coniferous saplings. Ranchers used 2,4,5-T to destroy anything that might interfere with livestock grazing, while rice growers sprayed it on about one hundred thousand acres, primarily in Arkansas and Mississippi, to kill parasite weeds like arrowhead, gooseweed, and ducksalad. In 1970, the USDA announced a set of limited restrictions on the use of 2,4,5-T; however, although the ban affected only about 20 percent of all 2,4,5-T used in the United States, Dow Chemical went to court, obtaining an injunction to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from further regulations until more testing was done.* Until 1979, when the EPA’s temporary and limited suspension order (which excluded rangelands and rice plantations) was issued, 2,4,5-T had been the most widely used herbicide in the country.

When the National Forest Service first sprayed Bob McKusick’s land, he had no idea that herbicides could be harmful: “The first time was in 1968. The kids were little, and we were out on the clay deposit in Kellner Canyon with two dogs, just standing there on my properly. A helicopter came across—and we’re in plain sight—and we tried to wave it off but the spray drifted down on top of us. I had no reason to believe it was harmful because the Forest Service said it was completely harmless to birds and animals and humans and it just worked on brush. But it caused a rash, and my dog, Coyote, got pneumonia and almost died. A few months later he did die. I notified the Forest Service that we’d been sprayed, but I didn’t know the stuff was bad.”1

One year later a forest ranger phoned McKusick, who at the time was a professional potter and was fortunate enough to have found a piece of land that included clay deposits, telling him to put pie tins at each corner of his clay deposits to mark the area so it would not be sprayed. But, says McKusick, “they sprayed my clay deposit too.” All of the complaining neighbors were sprayed, including a woman named Billy Shoecraft, who compiled more than a hundred files on chemical poisons before she died of cancer. For three consecutive days the Forest Service sprayed, and, explains McKusick, “We all got bleeding ears; in fact we had bleeding from all body orifices. There’s this disease called IHS—internal hemorrhaging syndrome. In Vietnam 1,300 war dogs got it and the government said it wasn’t because they were spraying with Agent Orange. The dogs got a virus, they said, and had to be destroyed. Well, after the 1969 spraying, we had IHS and I can’t tell you how many horses and cows had it.”

Animals in the canyon began dying, giving birth to deformed offspring, lying paralyzed on the ground. Some even forgot how to breed. Before the spraying, McKusick recalls, there were no problems, no deformities or miscarriages. But in 1969, “60 to 70 percent of our goats were born deformed, and we’ve had heavy deformities ever since.”

McKusick, who has had a series of heart attacks during the fourteen years since the spraying, adds, “I can’t prove any of this was caused by the spray, but all I can say is that before the spray I was healthy as a horse. The doctor told me I would never have heart trouble. And our family did not have a history of illness …”

The McKusicks and other families living in the spray zone attempted to find help in their struggle to get the Forest Service to stop the spraying, but to no avail. “We went to everyone we could think of and nobody would help us. We went to Senator Barry Goldwater and he couldn’t be bothered … We asked Governor Jack Williams for help and he laughed. Representative Sam Steiger was the only exception. He tried to help, but he simply didn’t have the weight to stop it …

“When they first sprayed, the Forest Service said the stuff would disappear in twenty-four hours. Then they changed their story and said it would be gone in three days, and then in thirty days … In [over fourteen] years, not one family here has dared to use their own well water.”

The McKusicks sued Dow Chemical and, after nearly a decade of legal delays, agreed to settle out of court for an undisclosed sum. But money, says McKusick, can never compensate for so many years of insecurity and hardship. “It’s very easy for somebody who has not had his family and himself sick for twelve years, his animals dying around him, and people laughing at him and criticizing him and never helping to say you should have gone and fought it for another three months and then when you won it and they appealed you could wait another ten or eleven years to get back in court and then they’d appeal it again and you could wait another ten or eleven years—just where in the hell does anybody think we’re going to get the strength to do it?

“We settled because of what life we have left and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know. My wife has had things removed from her; I’ve had growths removed from me; friends have had growths. I’ve had heart problems; three or four times I’ve collapsed. Of course, a lot of people have died.

“The only good thing we’ve got going for us is, I don’t know if they’ll spray it somewhere else, but I know they won’t come back here.”

Like Vietnam veterans Paul Reutershan, Charles Owen, and Ed Juteau, Billie Shoecraft died believing her cancer was the result of having been exposed to herbicides. Like other Americans who have sued Dow Chemical, the McKusicks grew tired of waiting for their day in court, settling as others have for an undisclosed sum of money from a company that insists there is still no evidence that 2,4,5-T harms humans. While publicly defending its product against “chemical witch hunters,” Dow has quietly paid off those who seemed to have a solid case against 2,4,5-T, thus managing to avoid the possibility of an embarrassing day in court.

For the McKusicks the battle against toxic herbicides may be over, but for Americans living near power lines, railroad rights-of-way, national forests, or private timber companies, the continued spraying of herbicides is both disturbing and frightening. Their fears are often based on far more then what Dow has called “anecdotal evidence.” For example, many residents of the Alsea region in Oregon, which includes Siuslaw National Forest, are aware that dioxin was discovered in eight of thirty-two wildlife samples taken from the forest, in the breast milk of one out of six woman living within the Siuslaw, and in “extremely high levels” in the garden soil of a young woman who had experienced four spontaneous abortions in three years while living adjacent to the National Forest. And they have read about seventeen tree planters working on Bureau of Land Management land that had been sprayed eleven months earlier with both 2,4-D and Silvex becoming ill with symptoms of herbicide poisoning, and an eight-year-old girl who contracted a rare blood disease, and whose tap water contained the same herbicides doctors discovered in her blood.2 And of course they remember being told that when sprayed from helicopters herbicides are harmless to humans and animals because “they biodegrade so rapidly that by the time they hit the ground they are perfectly innocuous.”

On April 11, 1978 a high school teacher by the name of Bonnie Hill, along with seven women residing in the Alsea region, sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency suggesting that until herbicides were proven safe, their use in the State of Oregon be stopped. The eight women had experienced a total of eleven miscarriages, all but one occurring during the spring (peak) spraying season, and nine of the miscarriages occurring in the first trimester of pregnancy. The one woman who experienced a miscarriage in the fall lived in an area that had been sprayed in the fall of that year. In their letter the women declared: “Even the latest Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement admits that ‘All chemicals are capable of causing toxic effects upon the developing embryo … Chemicals can become available to the embryo in spite of the mother’s excretion and metabolism capabilities.’ ” Copies of the letter were also mailed to Oregon legislators, agencies and companies using herbicides, the editorial pages of major Oregon newspapers, and other health and environmental agencies the women felt might be sympathetic.

The letter was the result of a grass-roots research effort by Mrs. Hill, which began when she read about the findings of Dr. James Allen at the University of Wisconsin and Dr. Wilbur McNulty at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center. In their research with primates Allen and McNulty discovered that rhesus monkeys fed minute doses of TCDD frequently miscarried, often in the first trimester of pregnancy. Hill, whose home is completely surrounded by land managed by the BLM, had experienced a miscarriage in the spring of 1975, and when she discovered that Silvex and 2,4-D had been sprayed not far from her home just a month before she lost her baby, she decided it was time to find out if other women in the Alsea region had experienced similar problems.

“I just started asking around,” Hill explains, “and every time I found out about a spontaneous abortion it had occurred in the spring. That’s what was so unusual. Up until recently I didn’t find out about any miscarriages that had happened at any other time of the year.

We are standing beside a counter in the home-economics room of the high school where Hill teaches, and as we talk she mixes the ingredients for a dessert she plans to take to a retirement dinner that evening. Apologizing for having to make the dessert, Hill offers her young daughter a g