Why Hasn’t The Government Learned Anything From The Agent Orange Health Crisis?

Health & Fitness
Agent Orange Barrels at Johnston Atoll circa 1976

In 1961, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem asked the United States to help defoliate the lush jungle that was providing cover to his Communist enemies. President John Kennedy acquiesced and formally launched Operation Ranch Hand, the United States Air Force’s program of systemic defoliation with the chemical compound Agent Orange. So many years later, we’re still coming to grips with the devastating effects of Agent Orange on troops and civilians alike. Decades of the government dragging its feet on dealing with the Agent Orange issue in any comprehensive way has delayed a full reckoning. New information about diseases caused by the defoliant trickle in year by year while clean-up efforts continue in Vietnam itself. The entire Agent Orange saga provides a casebook study in how not to deal with the health and environmental fallout of combat.


Agent Orange use was revolutionary in scope, not concept. During and after the Second World War, Allied forces collaborated in exploring the potential of using defoliating agents in Southeast Asia. The British put those experiments to practical use when they used pesticides and poisons to clear brush and kill crops in a counterinsurgency campaign against Communist guerrillas during Operation Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. American leaders then, in a leap of playground logic, made the dangerous assumption that such a close, English-speaking ally using defoliating agents in war meant that it was morally and legally justified for us to do the same.

A U.S. Huey helicopter sprays Agent Orange over Vietnam

According to The New York Times, “From 1962 to 1971, American C-123 transport planes sprayed roughly 20 million gallons of herbicides on an area of South Vietnam about the size of Massachusetts.” This ecocide, as some have called it, wasn’t meant to just clear jungle space for patrols and reconnaissance; it was also part of the larger strategic goal of forced urbanization.

Related: When it comes to burn pits, veterans might be on their own »

Of course, now we know how horrible Agent Orange is. According to the Red Cross, over 3 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange, and over 1 million are permanently disabled or have lingering health effects due to exposure. Those health effects include cleft palates, hernias, extra digits on fingers and toes, developmental disabilities, and birth defects such as spina bifida. The Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes the following diseases as correlating with Agent Orange exposure in veterans: diabetes mellitus, Hodgkin’s disease, Ischemic heart disease, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, soft-tissue sarcoma, AL amyloidosis, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and early onset peripheral neuropathy, among others. The diseases caused by Agent Orange, passed on through generations and manifesting in our children, is a terrible shared legacy of the war.

But it was a massive endeavor to get any of these issues considered on a national stage. For years, the government’s official position was that the severe health issues of veterans exposed to Agent Orange were only “presumptive” or tentatively connected, usually using language that was less than conclusive when discussing the issue. Veterans had to wage a long, difficult fight in order to be recognized. There were a series of class action lawsuits in the early 1980s against Monsanto and Dow, the manufacturers of Agent Orange. The first state-run investigatory panel launched in 1980 in New Jersey and came up with some interesting new ways to test dioxin levels in the blood, but the project, which was run in conjunction with Rutgers University, was disbanded in 1996. It wasn’t until Congress passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991 that the VA was given authority to recognize and treat Agent Orange exposure — and to give compensation for veterans as well. The act isn’t perfect, but it’s something.

The only study conducted right after the war, the Air Force Health Study, reached the dubious conclusion that Agent Orange didn’t cause ill health effects. It’s a conclusion that’s been since repudiated by myriad independently conducted studies (including one linking Agent Orange to bone cancer) and anecdotal testimony from people suffering from Agent Orange-related illnesses in places where the defoliant was buried. In the latest news, the list of Agent Orange-caused diseases is actually expanding to include bladder cancer, hyperthyroidism, and “Parkinson’s-like” symptoms. Meanwhile, the United States has been gradually increasing its funding for clean-up efforts of dioxin hotspots in Vietnam over the past few decades, with the latest effort having a price tag of $100 million.  

So how do we avoid another Agent Orange issue in the future? The most obvious answer seems to be conducting a comprehensive and honest study of the health effects of our wars, and to not wait 50 years to do so. Realizing that the military and its private contractors aren’t omniscient, having a list of known health effects expanding almost 60 years after the fact isn’t a sign of an honest mistake. It’s a sign of not wanting to actually know the truth from the outset. An unwillingness to approach the full consequences of our wars with complete candor is unfortunately being echoed in the VA, and larger government, response to burn pits.

Let’s not make the same mistake here that we did with Agent Orange. There’s no reason why the list of known health effects of burn pit exposure should be expanding in 2060. Veterans and our children simply can’t wait that long.

(U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith)

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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

The gunmaker also released a short documentary entitled "Once A Marine, Always A Marine" — a fitting title given Anzaldua's courageous actions in the line of duty

Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

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