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Vets Lose Not Only Lives, But Immortality as Well : Agent Orange: The federal government has been cruelly slow to compensate Vietnam veterans and their families for ailments linked to defoliant.

November 11, 1990|Laura Palmer | Laura Palmer, who reported from Vietnam for two years, is author of "Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial" (Random House)

NEW YORK — If chemical weapons are used against American soldiers in the Persian Gulf, the troops have only two things to keep them safe: protective suits and masks that look like scuba gear from space, and the faith that their government will take care of them no matter what happens.

Bet on the scuba gear.

The last time American soldiers were poisoned in warfare was in Vietnam. But it was not from any deadly chemicals concocted in Hanoi. It was from Agent Orange, the deadly dioxin-contaminated defoliant sprayed by the United States throughout South Vietnam.

Since the end of the war, thousands of Vietnam veterans inadvertently exposed to the toxic herbicide have become sick. Many have died or are dying. Their families have also been affected. Wives of Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange have a higher incidence of miscarriages, and their children are at an increased risk for birth defects and learning disabilities.

"I never thought my service in Vietnam would cost me three children," says Dana Shuster. "I should have a house full of teen-age boys, and I don't." Shuster was an Army nurse in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968. After she came home from the war, she lost two sons in spontaneous abortions. A third was born dead. Her fourth son survived, although he was born with multiple heart defects.

Twenty years old when she arrived in Vietnam, Shuster was stationed in Cu Chi, an area saturated with Agent Orange. "We'd be walking around the base, and there would be stacks and stacks of Agent Orange barrels. Our first showers there were made of empty Agent Orange barrels. We sawed Agent Orange barrels in half and used them to grill steaks. We had no idea that the stuff didn't wash away. They told us it was safe."

Shuster, who has also had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that may be linked to her Agent Orange exposure, says her health problems are not unique. "I don't know any nurses who served where I did who haven't had miscarriages, strange illnesses themselves or children with rare birth defects. There may be some, but I simply don't know any."

Now Shuster is frightened. "We don't know if we are going to have an increased incidence of deformed and defective grandchildren. They've taken our lives away, they've taken our health away and, in some cases, they may be taking our immortality away."

Mary Barton said her husband, Wayne, was a big man, both in size and spirit, who had been a Army radio operator in Vietnam in 1968. They lived in Danville, Iowa, where the rhythms of rural life bend with the seasons. He hauled freight on a big semi, and she raised their two children.

In October, 1986, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and six months later, he was dead at 42. Even though Wayne had smoked, this was a cancer more savage and ferocious than his doctors had ever seen. The cancer threw up tumors like grenades. "When he died, he had 29 visible tumors on his body," his widow said.

"Before he died, Wayne begged his doctors to find out if Agent Orange was what was killing him," Mary Barton said. She managed to have the Veterans Administration test for dioxin in his autopsy, and had a second test done at Rutgers University. Both confirmed her husband had an exceptionally high level of dioxin in his body fat.

But the V.A. has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that his death was service connected. His widow's repeated appeals have led to dead-ends and delays.

She is appalled that it is so hard to make her government respond. "If they had found traces of arsenic in Wayne's body, let me tell you, no stone would have gone unturned until I found out how it got there. But they find the most toxic chemical known to mankind at elevated levels in my husband's body and nobody seems to care. All I have really ever asked for is for the V.A. to acknowledge that this is what killed Wayne Barton. I feel my husband was murdered and no one seems to care."

The fight for compensation for Agent Orange victims is now 12 years old. That fact is worthy of outrage itself.

"It took us 45 years to compensate the Japanese (who were incarcerated during World War II); it took us 25 years to compensate the soldiers who were forced to be exposed to atomic radiation in the desert, and it took us 15 or 20 years to compensate the soldiers who, without their knowledge, were exposed to LSD. It could certainly take that long to win this Agent Orange battle," says Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., on the front lines in the fight to win compensation.

Ironically, Zumwalt was the naval commander in Vietnam who ordered the spraying of Agent Orange in 1968, to destroy the ground cover shielding enemy troops. He was assured the defoliant was safe.

His son, Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III, who served in Vietnam, died two years ago from cancer that his father believes was caused by Agent Orange. But the tragedy reached into the next generation as well; the admiral's grandson, Russell, suffers from profound learning disabilities that the Zumwalts also believe are linked to Agent Orange.

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