In 1961, the United States was more than shoulder-deep in the Vietnam war. Forests, dark and thick, sheltered the enemy. Something had to be done to clear the way. The military recruited Agent Orange, a dioxin-based herbicide, spraying down the foliage to reveal the hidden positions of the Viet Cong. The poison helped during the battle, but the unintended consequences started a war between veterans and the government that sent them to the jungles in the first place. Agent Orange’s toll continues to be felt to this day among those who fought the enemy and who now fight the government for what they see as their due. But will the bills be paid, or will the veterans lose the war, so many years later?
The VA will make several important decisions this year regarding Agent Orange coverage. Topics up for consideration include:
- Whether to expand coverage for more conditions that may be related to Agent Orange exposure.
- Whether to cover Navy veterans who served off the Vietnam coast.
- Whether to cover veterans who served along the Korean DMZ and who may have been exposed.
- Whether the descendants of exposed veterans have been affected.
The VA already recognizes several diseases as the result of Agent Orange exposure, including type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, early-onset peripheral neuropathy, and many different forms of cancer. Expanding Agent Orange’s toll to include other conditions like high blood pressure or the risk of stroke is controversial. On one hand, as people age, they increasingly develop these effects whether or not they served in Vietnam. On the other, it’s not right for those who developed medical problems as a result of their military service to be forgotten when the payments come due.
Those payments are the crux of the problem. The government has a tarnished history of promising the moon in order to sign up new recruits, while finding (or creating) reasons to avoid paying the bill when the going gets tough. For example, the “one boot” policy provides for coverage of acknowledged health problems if a servicemember set one foot in Vietnam or Thailand during their tour. However, this fails to cover those who “only” served at the notorious Fort McClellan, the only facility in the country where these chemicals were used in training.
The VA also continues to minimize and deny Agent Orange’s toll on military veterans. Dr. Alvin L. Young, also known as “Doctor Orange,” served as an expert consultant in Agent Orange related investigations. He was instrumental in saving the government money by denying or delaying claims made by veterans who said their health was adversely affected by exposure to the herbicide. In 2009, he advised the Air Force to quietly destroy a fleet of C-123 planes that once sprayed Agent Orange over the jungles of Vietnam, presumably hoping that evidence of contamination would be harder to come by. Later, in 2011, Young opined in an email that some vets were “freeloaders,” trying to “cash in” by accessing the compensation system.
With friends like Doctor Orange, who needs enemies?
As we boldly venture into a changing world, perhaps shifting alliances and making policy at the fickle drop of a Presidential tweet, we owe it to our current and former military servicemembers (and the civilians that support them) to remember that the true cost of war isn’t merely the price tag of the weaponry or the paychecks cut for those who serve. When we deploy our sons and daughters to fight our wars, morality demands that we offer up a blank check potentially as large as the one they are offering to us. If we can’t manage to recompense our Vietnam vets for Agent Orange’s toll on their minds, bodies, and even their children, how can we ask anyone else to lace up their boots and take bullets for us in the future? Taking care of those who come home broken, and the families of those who couldn’t come home, is not only our duty, it is part of the cost of war. If that cost is too great for us to bear, perhaps we can’t afford the giant military or the adventurism our representatives want, can we?
Related: Fort McClellan: A Toxic Scandal