BY BARBARA TUCKER
Niagara Gazette — Agent Orange, one of a host of highly toxic herbicides used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War has returned with a vengeance, affecting many of the three million veterans who served in the war in Southeast Asia and their families.
Called “Agent Orange” because of the orange band painted on the drums that stored it, was used to defoliate hiding places of the Viet Cong, rice paddies and fields as well as around the military bases.
“We were told it wasn’t harmful to humans,” said Jim May of North Tonawanda, who served in the Navy in Vietnam serving on a hospital ship off the coast, classified as “blue water.”
From 1962 to 1971, 11 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed in Vietnam, May explained. By the time the spraying stopped, Agent Orange had destroyed more than 5 million acres of land, roughly the size of New Jersey.
“Even though the government said it was safe, they were endangering our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren,” May said. “It wasn’t just the spray, but the dioxin got into the water system, used for drinking, showering and food.”
But the terrible effects of the dioxin that caused cancers, diabetes and a host of other diseases and disabilities for the veterans, went beyond the veterans.
A case in point is May’s grandson, who at nine months old was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, cancer of the eye. The baby had his eye removed and now has a prosthetic.
Although there’s no family history of anything like this, May did know several people in the area who are Vietnam veterans and whose grandchildren have had similar problems.
May himself, shortly after his return to civilian life, experienced a rash on both legs. His legs became swollen and doctors were unable to find a cause. Following a long struggle with the government and the VA, he was able to persuade them to re-evaluate his case.
A strain of dioxin found in Agent Orange has been linked to birth defects, stillbirths, cancers and other diseases.
Thanks to the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 77 in the City of Tonawanda, veterans began learning about ongoing health issues which are associated with exposure to Agent Orange and other harmful chemicals used in the war. At a meeting at the Chapter 77 museum on Main Street in Tonawanda, a group of Vietnam veterans gathered to talk, joke and enjoy friendship carved from their war time experience.
Dennis Stafanski of Pendleton spent a year in Vietnam after his Air National Guard unit was called up.
“I could smell the chemical,” he said. “Even today, the smell of chemicals reminds me of Agent Orange.”
Bob Metz from Elma spent one year in the Army in Vietnam. An electrician by trade, he talked about how many children of veterans have spinal bifida and other birth defects.
“They should be compensated,” he said.
Although Karl Oertel served in Thailand, his unit’s job was to put up a fence around the base. The fence was sprayed with Agent Orange and because his boots had nylon tops, they soaked up the chemical, leaving him with a lesion on the side of his foot.
The veterans agree that the government, the VA and citizens didn’t treat them with dignity when they returned home, but the attitude has changed.
Terry Durkin of North Tonawanda, who spent 21 months and 24 days in Vietnam, said for the past 15 years the VA has come around.
“I was in the Army Aviation and spent most of my time in the Delta,” he explained. “I was one of the few who came home unscathed.”
Tim Aidman, who served in the Army, said his unit’s job was to disrupt the supply line and the unit was often attacked by the Vietnamese.
In 1980, Chapter 77 was born when a group of Vietnam veterans decided to help each other.
“We had to lobby in Washington to get a charter,” Greg Cain explained. “Finally by 1982 we were chartered.”
“Our chapter has 550 members, the second largest in the country and largest in the state,” Joe Pasek, a chapter member said.
“We’ve had great community support and at our fundraisers we give out orange poppies as well as information on veterans’ benefits," Pasek said. "We need to get the word out so that families who may have been affected can learn how to register with the VA and get some answers to ongoing health issues.”
Cain explained that one of the chapter's projects is a food pantry for needy veterans and their families. Food is stored in the basement of the museum.
“I am surprised and dismayed to find three to five families a week coming for help,” Cain said. “It’s a disgrace. This chapter is an energetic force for vets, now for their kids and grand kids.”
Jack Michel said in 2006 at a national Vietnam Veterans convention, delegates talked about how many of their grandchildren had health problems.
“Congress refused to help the children and have them be eligible for help,” Michel commented.
A former vice president of Chapter 77, he said chapters are still being former across the country, a number now in the thousands. The goals are five-fold: comradeship, education, benefits, health care and employment.
“We have to help take care of future generations,” Michel said.
With this in mind, a Town Hall meeting will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 14 in Room K-100 in the Kittinger Building at Erie Community College, North Campus, Main Street and Youngs Road, Williamsville.
The theme will be the “Legacy of Exposure to Agent Orange on Vietnam Veterans and Our Offspring.”
Former national president Nancy Switzer will attend as well as former national director Dr. Patrick W. Welch, who will serve as moderator.
"(Welch) is one of the four most knowledgeable people on Agent Orange on the planet," Cain said.
Also on hand will be verified veterans service officers will answer questions and assist individual in making out a claim.
Richard E. Phenneger, president and executive director of Phenneger & Associates, founded the Veterans Services Transparency Inc., a non profit organization dedicated exposing the truth about what is happening to veterans.
Phenneger wrote “Legacies of War, The Truth About Agent Orange in Vietnam.” In his documented expose, he wrote that his research showed that Vietnam Veterans have been victims of a decades-long scheme to systematically conceal the known effects of Agent Orange, resulting in denial of care for injuries, life-long suffering and greatly shortened life expectancy.
A registry is being created by representatives of the national office of Vietnam Veterans of America, headed by Mokie Porter, director of communications and marketing and Dr. Tom Burger, director of the VVA national health council.
Pasek summed up the feelings of the Vietnam veterans: “The (Vietnam) War is not over until all people are given the care they need.”