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At town-hall meetings around the country, Vietnam-era veterans are gathering to learn about the possible consequences of wartime exposure to Agent Orange on their children.
By Rose Hoban
When Irwin Brawley came home from Vietnam in 1969, he really didn’t want to talk about the war. He got a job at Davidson College, kept his head down, got married and had two daughters.
“It was real liberal,” Brawley said. “They were protesting the war on the campus, but I just took the low-key approach.”
A few years ago, Brawley retired from Davidson. He was also diagnosed with ischemic heart disease. Someone told him that the cause of his heart problems could have been that while performing his job as a transport driver he was sprayed with Agent Orange, the dioxin-based defoliant used widely throughout the Vietnam conflict.
“They sprayed on us when we were in convoys, especially in the highlands,” he remembered.
He filed a claim to the Veterans Administration for disability compensation based on Agent Orange exposure and his claim was accepted. Now he gets about $600 per month after the VA determined about 30 percent of his disability was a result of exposure.
What really bothers Brawley now is not the problems Agent Orange may have caused for him but health issues his daughters have experienced all their lives, including autoimmune problems. One of his grandsons was born with webbed toes, and he wonders if that was because of his Agent Orange exposure.
Brawley was part of a crowd of about 150 former service members at a three-hour town-hall meeting last week at Richard’s Coffee Shop and Military Museum in Mooresville, learning about “legacy” health problems related to Agent Orange and other herbicides used widely in Vietnam. The meeting was sponsored by local groups and featured speakers from the national offices of the the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America, an organization that supports family members of Vietnam vets.
Since the passage of federal legislation in 1991, the Department of Veterans Affairs has recognized certain diseases suffered by Vietnam veterans could have a direct relationship to dioxin exposure. These diseases include ischemic heart disease, adult onset diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, Hodgkins and non-Hodgkins Lymphomas and a number of types of leukemia and cancer, among other ailments.
As time has passed, more scientific evidence has accumulated to show that in addition to veterans’ problems, some children of Vietnam vets have had health problems that could also be connected to their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange, including spina bifida, cleft lip and palate, webbed fingers and fused toes and some genital deformities.
“Often, veterans won’t come [to these meetings] for themselves, but for their kids and grandkids,” said Mokie Porter, director of communications and marketing for the Vietnam Veterans of America.
In the past four years, Porter has traveled the country convening more than 50 meetings of veterans to talk about compensation for Agent Orange exposure, but this was only the first one in North Carolina. She said there’s still a lot of education to do for veterans about the possibility their children have also been affected.
Porter said legislation introduced last fall in Congress would fund research into “legacy problems” for those exposed to Agent Orange, pay for services to defendants and provide for outreach. But with only two co-sponsors, the bill has an uphill climb to get passed. She is hoping to build support for the bill through the town-hall meetings.
File and file again
Many Vietnam veterans were disengaged from the VA after returning home from the war, Porter said. While many know about possible effects of Agent Orange exposure for themselves, they don’t realize their children could have been affected as well. And because veterans are scattered across the country, it is harder to identify disease “clusters,” groups of people with unusual diseases that might have been caused by an environmental exposure.
So Porter encourages veterans to file claims for compensation, even if a child’s problem has not yet been found to be connected to Agent Orange exposure.
“We need to show that there’s a problem,” she said. “If they see the volume, there’s more of a reason to address the issue.”
“At first with Agent Orange, the feds denied there were all these problems,” said Deborah Musolino from the Wilmington chapter of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America, who drove up for the meeting. “Now there are so many veterans that are coming up with illnesses and disease.”
She said as scientific evidence has accumulated, the VA has continued to add to the list of illnesses recognized by the VA as related to Agent Orange.
Musolino said that national organizers are encouraging veterans to file claim for their children’s health problems. And even if those claims are denied, at some point in time the scientific evidence may show there is a connection to Agent Orange.
“File a claim; they’ll deny it. But maybe at some point, they will accept it,” Musolino said. “What happens with the VA is that from the date of application they go back, and that’s when you get the compensation; the date of application, not the date that the claim is approved.”
“It might take years and years. But if there is an award given, we’re hoping these children and grandchildren may receive some benefit.”
“The population is a little more amenable to coming forward and being part of organizations and potentially getting access to care, where years ago they wouldn’t have,” said Allan Perkal, who drove down to Morrisville from Asheville. Perkal is a Vietnam veteran and a retired counselor who worked with his compatriots with post traumatic stress disorder.
He’s planning on arranging another town-hall meeting in Asheville this fall, while Musolino is planning a meeting for this summer in Wilmington.
North Carolina has a large percentage of veterans. According to data from the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, the state has more than 736,000 veterans living here, 35 percent of whom were in Vietnam (about 256,000 veterans).
When asked if veterans really don’t know yet about Agent Orange, Perkal said it was surprising how many veterans didn’t think the problem applied to them.
“There’s a major aspect of avoidance and denial and things they haven’t done with their health or things they’ve done to aggravate their health issues, but not gone in for treatment,” said Perkal, who noted that many veterans felt mistreated by the VA system when they first returned from the war and never sought further help from the VA. “They’re out there; they’re by themselves, feeling alienated from things that could help them out.”
Perkal said he was looking forward to getting more meetings organized and getting the word out among his network in Western North Carolina.
“The word coming from other veterans always makes a difference, because the trust issues are always a problem with Vietnam veterans,” Perkal said. “It’s one veteran at a time.”