VA uses this day, May 7th, 1975, as the delineator of the last day any of us who participated in the Southeast Asia War Games were exposed to Dow and Monsantos’ revolutionary new herbicides. That meant you had one year to file for sub-acute peripheral neuropathy, chloracne or what I suffer from- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda (PCT). Unfortunately for us, Beverly Nehmer had not arrived on scene yet and would not for a decade or more. This did not absolve us of our obligation to file if we desired remuneration, however.
Over the intervening thirty nine years, we have accumulated evidence of what the chemical was capable of. Nevertheless, the National Institutes of Health, ably guided by the VA, has determined that 2016 will be the cutoff date for any new research on additional diseases associated with it.
Having lived in it, breathed it, absorbed it and ingested it for two years, one thing I can say was the modes of ingress into the body were many. You inhaled it into your lungs when it was still a mist in the air or later after it dried and was stirred up in the dry, red clay when aircraft or choppers took off and landed. You rubbed up against it and subsequently absorbed it transdermally when you touched anything. Absent any sanitary measures, it was on your c-ration cans and you in all likelihood ate it as well. Three everyday routes of ingestion and yet we often lose these claims for lack of documentation-documentation I might add that was unknown medically at the time-.i.e. why would you try to accrue medical evidence for something you and the government swears they were unaware of?
With multiple paths to ingestion, it seems curious VA would spend so much time poking a hole in any meaningful research and downplaying it’s role in later disease processes. Monsanto employees were complaining of PCT as well as chloracne as early as 1958 during early production runs of Agent Pink. Considering I didn’t even know the blackheads that developed on the inside of my arms and the sebaceous cysts behind my ears were related to this, I never sought medical attention in that crucial window of a year following my last exposure to it. Many of you did not either. Who would have thought to?
It has mystified me as to why the VA would have a press conference in 1991 declaring culpability for this and immediately start assigning time limits for certain of the diseases such that most, if not all, expired before you could even file for them. Take for example, the sub-acute peripheral neuropathy requirement. You had to have medical evidence of it within a narrow one year window of your last exposure to it. VA also would not offer compensation three years subsequent to that last exposure date:
38 CFR § 3.309(e) (note 2)
For purposes of this section, the term acute and subacute peripheral neuropathy means transient peripheral neuropathy that appears within weeks or months of exposure to an herbicide agent and resolves within two years of the date of onset.
If that were the end of it, we might simply shake our heads and comprehend this was another meaningless regulation enacted to cover VA’s ass and relieve them of any obligation to pay us for AO and it’s band of brother chemicals. It wasn’t. In 1991, the insidious effects of Agent Orange and the other, nastier ones like Pink and Green, were not well researched by the government or, if they were , were not widely advertised. Nevertheless, in 1991 38 CFR 3.307(a) (6) went on to narrow the rules for remuneration and in the process, eviscerated any meaningful compensation for all but a handful of us.
(6) Diseases associated with exposure to certain herbicide agents.(i)
For the purposes of this section, the term “herbicide agent” means a chemical in an herbicide used in support of the United States and allied military operations in the Republic of Vietnam during the period beginning on January 9, 1962, and ending on May 7, 1975, specifically: 2,4-D; 2,4,5-T and its contaminant TCDD; cacodylic acid; and picloram.
(Authority: 38 U.S.C. 1116(a)(4))
(ii) The diseases listed at § 3.309(e) shall have become manifest to a degree of 10 percent or more at any time after service, except that chloracne or other acneform disease consistent with chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, and acute and subacute peripheral neuropathy shall have become manifest to a degree of 10 percent or more within a year after the last date on which the veteran was exposed to an herbicide agent during active military, naval, or air service.
This little codicil eliminated many claims in one fell swoop. Keeping in mind that Parkinson’s disease, Hairy, B-cell carcinomas, IHD and the like were added in 2010, scanning the list of permissible (read compensable) diseases in 1991 reveals it was mighty skinny. DM2, prostate cancer and some of the others weren’t added until 2001. The long and the short of this is that it is an ongoing scientific affair that VA feels has played out. They honestly believe any further research into it would be throwing good money after dubious money. Considering VA belatedly came to the conclusion Parkinson’s et al were somehow connected only three short years ago, we have to wonder who’s in charge of the investigation. Why the bum’s rush out the door and a concomitant desire to shut down the inquiry?
The key word is remuneration. Remember, VA has a requirement that you file a claim if you desire service connection. Absent that, you get the TY4YS speech. Unless, or until you file, VA gives you zip. If you happened to be a far thinker in 1991 and had applied for DM2, prostate cancer or any of the host of diseases that were added in 2010, you’re in high cotton. VA would have to go back and pay you for all of them. But if you didn’t file, you lose out. And if you were really not on the ball and forgot to file for that pesky skin disease that manifested while you were in sunny Southeast Asia back in the sixties, again, tough luck.
How asinine is it to pass a law that purports to help and remunerate Vets and proffer it with the right hand all the while with the firm intention of retracting any hope of compensation with the left? Or, why offer something that no one could possibly qualify for? This same insidious method is now being refurbished and sold as the Camp LeJeune water contamination remuneration fund. The only problem is they are doing a carbon copy take off of the early AO program. The list of diseases is remarkably small in number and encompasses only what they feel is demonstrably linked to it. I suppose by 2028, when they quit looking for other diseases to list that a majority of those who are ostensibly entitled will have dwindled to more manageable numbers that won’t deplete the coffers of money set aside.
May 7th, 1975. Thirty nine years since we bugged out a few minutes ahead of the DRV’s PT-76s coming down Thong Nhut Boulevard. Seems almost like yesterday. If not for the horror of all the herbicide damage to the land and souls, it might have a more endearing meaning. For those of us who served in that era, be it in-country or in adjacent countries like Okinawa, Japan or Korea, the date is one that for us will live in infamy.We were all tarred and feathered with the same brush regardless of our proximity to the action.
Every war we engaged in prior to the Vietnam debacle had a modicum of success. Parades and welcome, joyous homecomings were the norm. A celebration of America’s greatness was implied but subtly downplayed. Until Vietnam, that is. This was the first war where we came home and snuck in the back door to avoid the angry crowds. A “conflict”, in the words of the VFW, that did not allow us entry into Veterans Service Organizations because our service was not during a “true war”. Approbation mixed with a desire to reassimilate and try to put nightmares behind us. In a word, we sought anonymity to avoid controversy. Merely admitting to being there was akin to being abnormal or suffering from mental aberration.
At a cocktail party in Medina, Washington in 1982, I found myself cheek and jowl with some very progressive folks who were well-heeled and opinionated. I had probably had more than my fair share of adult beverages when I overheard my hostess say “Yes. Alex over there was in Vietnam but I know he doesn’t speak of it much”. Less than thirty seconds later I was wiping the alcohol-laced spittle off my face as “Marcie” proceeded to ask how I could explain killing all those women and children. Apparently, the wrong answer was ” Well, Marcie. It was much easier than most think. Since they don’t run as fast, you didn’t have to lead them as much. The 5.56mm X 45mm projectile we employed in our M-16s also has a very high muzzle velocity which is helpful, too.” I guess I don’t need to tell you that will remove you from the “A” list at all the good cocktail parties. In spite of my charming wit and expert rejoinders on current events, I never was able to get back on that circuit.
Thus I find it difficult to respond to the “Hail, fellow well met” I get when someone says “Welcome back” 42 years later. A famous author said “You can never go home” and they were right. Well-meaning Americans can no more go back and make amends for what we failed to do in 1975 after that conflict than they can bring Kennedy back to life. We can never hold a parade a few years late and engender the same essential element of pride in our troops. Time marches on and with it, our live and our emotions. Not a day goes by that a sound of a chopper overhead, the sound of a gunshot in the distance or a reference to an iconic part of that war such as a base or a valley does not bring back a flood of emotions best left buried and forgotten. Would that we could ignore them.
Thus to me, May 7th, 1975 will always be my Band of Brothers Day. It symbolizes a cutoff from an era of war to one of peace. It denotes a stark “before and after” where one group was damned and despised and the follow-on cohort was innocent and unsullied by the prior conflict. A new beginning, perhaps. Too bad we didn’t get the Ego Te Absolvo… or perhaps that’s for the best. I think it separated the ribbon clerks from the real poker players back then. It’s certainly the only war where we came in third.
I cannot express the pride I feel today to be one of these “great unwashed” from the Vietnam War. I’m no longer ashamed to count myself as an unreconstructed war criminal of that boundary dispute. Our numbers dwindle daily due to old age and disease. We, as a cohort, will probably disappear before some who served in Korea if the statistics continue to prove true. The miracle is that we got a Memorial before we disappeared-unlike many who served valiantly in World War II. One day they’ll create an annex next to it for all who served contemporaneously, and just as bravely, I might add, in the adjacent countries of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. To many, the conflict lay within the confines of the Republic of South Vietnam. To those of us who were there, it encompassed the whole Indochinese peninsula all the way from Burma in the West to Communist China.
To those of you with “Welcome Back” on the tips of your tongues who gregariously like to glad hand Vietnam Veterans-a word of warning. Not all of us cotton to being thanked for our service forty years after our names were taken in vain. Some would like to forget that time. Others revel in the praise and the tardy parades. Each carries a different mental anchor. Be wary how/if you show your appreciation.
And lastly, I see depictions or mockups of barrels that AO used to arrive in. None looked like this. Seems it would be more historically accurate to depict them as they appeared so long ago rather than a cheap Hollywood knockoff.